Space Technologies and Applications

Space technologies designate technologies used to enable activities conducted in outer space, such as Earth observation, satellite communication, satellite navigation or even robotic and human space exploration beyond Earth’s orbits. These technologies are often developed by space agencies, governments, and private companies, and can serve a variety of motives.

When it comes to climate action, the unique viewpoint available from Earth’s orbits on the planet allows for global coverage and accurate monitoring of changes at different scales. It is highly beneficial for monitoring climate change, mitigating its causes, helping adapt to its consequences, and finally supporting society to become more resilient.  

Earth observation satellites are for instance able to monitor changes in the atmosphere and on Earth’s surface at a spatial resolution of a few dozens of meters to a few dozens of centimeters depending on the type of sensors used. In addition, contrary to a plane or a drone which provides an observation platform during a limited time at an altitude of below 14 km, satellites allow for a much larger coverage for much longer.

Classification of Orbits

A satellite on an orbit similar to the international space station (ISS) – about 400 km – completes about 16 rotations around the Earth every day. Typical Earth observation constellations in low Earth orbit (LEO) – below 2000 km – are nowadays able to capture a complete coverage of the Earth in less than a few days, while Earth observation constellations in geostationary orbit (GEO) – about 36,000 km – have constant global coverage. Similar advantages in terms of global coverage and efficiency can be noted in satellite-based communications and satellite-based navigation.

Thanks to these capabilities, about 60 % of the 54 Essential Climate Variables can be monitored from space: land and ocean temperatures, water vapor, aerosols, greenhouse gases, ozone, glacier levels, fires, sea levels, etc. From these indicators, climate models can be improved, extreme weather events can be forecasted, and many other climate relevant actions can be facilitated.
In some cases, space activities beyond Earth’s orbits can also be beneficial for climate action thanks to technology diffusion. Space is an extremely challenging environment for any system or human being, which explains why space technologies are often designed for low energy requirements, high robustness, high accuracy, and reusability, among other characteristics. These very characteristics can be beneficial on the ground, for climate action: solar panels, water filters, high-performance batteries, and others can be directly advanced by spin-offs stemming from space technology and research.


Space technologies and the SDGs 

Achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda necessitates the use of available technologies and innovations, including space technologies. Satellite-based Earth observation, navigation, positioning, and communication services are used across many sectors. Geolocation, for example, is a key part of today’s advanced industrial society, being widely used in transportation (e.g., roads, aviation, maritime, etc.), high precision and consumer applications, fleet management, provision of time information in critical national infrastructures, and scientific applications (e.g., measuring the impact of weather on humans and natural systems, and of earthquakes).  

Project alignment efforts, by space agencies and other organizations, were crucial in illustrating the contribution of space technologies to the SDGs. A study by Baumgart et al. (2021) provided an aggregate map of space-based technology projects’ alignment with the SDGs and their targets. Beyond the most widely used space technologies (Earth Observation, Communication Satellites (SatCom) and Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS)), this study highlighted the contributions of Technology Transfer, Space Exploration and Space Science to the SDGs and their targets.    


Figure: Share of the various technologies for each SDG at Target level (6.A), Goal level (6.B) and aggregated view of Target and Goal level (6.C). Source: Baumgart et al. (2021). 



Space technologies and applications are instrumental for climate action through: