APU Environmental Original

Planetary Sustainability: Space Exploration and Technology

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By Dr. Kristin Drexler
Faculty Member, School of STEM

Note: This is the first article in an ongoing series on planetary sustainability. This series will look through a socioecological systems lens (combining ecological and human factors) and the macro-view of space-based observations to better understand the complex whole of Earth sustainability and planetary protection.

As a faculty member in the Space and Earth Studies program in the School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), I am regularly reminded how both Earth sciences and space studies are inextricably linked. Earth sciences includes fields such as geology (rocks, minerals, and landforms), weather and climate, geography (physical and human), geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing and Earth resource conservation. Space studies includes astronomy, satellite systems, space flight, rocketry, Earth observation and habitable worlds.

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Space Exploration, Technology and Earth Sustainability

Space exploration and technology has an important role in Earth sustainability. Earth observation from space is important for understanding our human role and impact on the planet – and how human economy, innovation, energy, governance, justice, poverty, health, agriculture, food security, and dozens of other factors affect Earth.

Through satellite remote sensing, we can see how land use change – conversion of forests to agriculture, for instance – can impact water, soils, food security, livelihoods and so on. Having the ability to see Earth resources from space will mean we are better able to manage them sustainably.   

What Is Sustainability and Sustainable Development?

 “Sustainability” as an interdisciplinary field involves ecological, economic, social, cultural, governance, and other components.  Global sustainability problems such as climate, water, food security and energy can’t be solved by science and engineering alone. Creating systemic, long-term solutions needs a solid understanding of human and ecosystem – or the socioecological system – interactions to inform environmental policy and decision-making.

The most widely used definition of “sustainable development” — from the 1987 Brundtland Report for the World Commission on Environment and Development – is: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

What Is Planetary Sustainability?

Planetary sustainability, as defined by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), involves this vision:

  1. A world in which all people have access to abundant water, food and energy, as well as protection from severe storms and climate change impacts;
  2. Healthy and sustainable worldwide economic growth from renewable products and resources; and
  3. A multi-planetary society, where the resources of the solar system are available to the people of Earth.

Planetary sustainability is an interdisciplinary endeavor with local, global and space implications. Planetary sustainability considers Earth as a planet in its space environment and space exploration a driver for planetary sustainability by aligning with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) developed by the United Nations (UN). The SDGs address the world’s most pressing needs.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a group of 17 interlinked, interdisciplinary and global goals designed to be a road map to achieve “a better and more sustainable future for all.” Set in 2015 by the UN General Assembly, the following 17 goals are intended to be achieved within this coming decade by 2030:

1. No Poverty

2. Zero Hunger

3. Good Health and Well-Being

4. Quality Education

5. Gender Equality

6. Clean Water and Sanitation

7. Affordable and Clean Energy

8. Decent Work and Economic Growth

9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

10. Reducing Inequality

11. Sustainable Cities and Communities

12. Responsible Consumption and Production

13. Climate Action

14. Life Below Water

15. Life on Land

16. Peace Justice and Strong Institutions

17. Partnerships for the Goals  

Image courtesy of the United Nations SDGs website.

Space Can Support Sustainable Development Goals

Many argue there should be a 18th goal of Space Environment. According to the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), space can support the SDGs with Earth observation (EO) and geolocation services provided by Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). UNOOSA states: “Space-based services and technologies are key in understanding climate change and during the full disaster management cycle; only two examples among countless applications to which space can contribute to.”

Space Exploration for Earth Sustainability 

Space exploration and spaced-based technology will be key in achieving the United Nations’ SDGs because, as Earth scientists, we rely on important observational data and communication technology, including Earth observations from satellites to monitor and measure land, ocean, and atmospheric changes. Simply put, we need space exploration and technology development for planetary sustainability and ensuring the achievement of the UN SDGs.

Dr. Kristen Miller is an associate professor in the Space Studies and Earth Studies programs teaching courses on topics such as astronomy, space weather, stars and galaxies, and lunar geology. About satellite technology informing Earth sustainability, she says, “Remote sensing is a key component of monitoring Earth’s resources. The view from space helps us to understand global trends and pinpoint specific needs.”

In a similar vein, Dr. Ed Albin, Program Director for Space and Earth Studies, notes that “Remote sensing of the Earth and other planets provides a unique perspective, where scientists can see the environment in terms of the whole planet. Comparative planetology allows Earth scientists to liken our world to other terrestrial planets — for instance, Venus and Mars — providing a planetary perspective for sustainability.” 

Student Organizations Dedicated to Science and Space

In addition to science-related academic programs, the university has two student organizations that focus on science topics connected to planetary sustainability, such as climate change, community action, and socio-ecological systems. These organizations are:

  • wSTEM: Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)
  • The Association of Women in Science (AWIS)

For more information or to join these groups for free (AMU/APU students, alumni and staff are welcome), please visit the wSTEM chapter website.

There are also two space-related student organizations. Dr. Kristen Miller is the faculty advisor for the university’s student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, (AIAA) which is “dedicated to shaping the future of aerospace.” Dr. Miller says, “AIAA is an active chapter with research project and networking opportunities.” 

Dr. Katelyn Milliman, also a faculty member in the Space Studies and Earth Studies program, advises the student chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS). The chapter description states: “The purpose of SEDS is to empower members to make an impact in space exploration, and provide opportunities to interact, network, and learn from leaders in the space industry.”

About the Author

Dr. Kristin Drexler is a full-time faculty member in the Space and Earth Studies Programs. She teaches Geography, Environmental Science, Earth System History, and Conservation of Natural Resources for the School of STEM. She earned her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership at New Mexico State University by researching socio-ecological systems, sustainable agroecology, and community education. She earned her Master of Arts in International Affairs with an emphasis in natural resources management from Ohio University.

Kristin has conducted numerous community surveys in Belize regarding agroforestry, conservation and sustainable agriculture. Until she became a full-time instructor with APU in 2009, she was an environmental scientist in New Mexico, conducting field biology surveys and environmental impact analyses. Drexler founded the Belize Field School Program at NMSU, coordinating short courses in Belize in wildlife, agroforestry, marine ecology, and documentary film (2006-2014) and produced an award-winning short film, “Yochi” in 2017 about youth conservation and action against poaching and illegal wildlife trade. In the late 1990s, she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Belize. She co-founded and serves on the board of directors of Full Basket Belize, a U.S. nonprofit that provides high school scholarships and community grants in Belize. Kristin serves as a faculty advisor for the university’s wSTEM and AWIS chapters.

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