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From environmental protection to the space economy

Images from Space show us a beautiful and fragile planet, and tell us how to protect it with solar power. And with the resources of the Moon.

by Luigia Ierace
28 April 2020
8 min read
by Luigia Ierace
28 April 2020
8 min read

Looking at space while space observes us. So far, yet never so amazingly close. Even temporal distances are shortened now that time is suspended by the Coronavirus pandemic. 59 years have passed since the human conquest of space: it was April 12, 1961 when the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed an orbit around the planet: 108 minutes among the stars. The former Soviet Union beat the United States, which took its revenge nine years later by conquering the Moon. On July 20, 1969, Italian American Rocco Petrone gave the “go” to Apollo 11 that took man to the Moon.

Now we have progressed from competition to cooperation. On April 13, 2020, in Russia, the Tsiolkovsky International Space Film Festival, supported by the Russian Space Agency, selected and rewarded the documentaryLuna italiana (Italian moon), directed by Marco Spagnoli and produced by Istituto Luce-Cinecittà, inspired by the story of Rocco Petrone, told by the journalist Renato Cantore (also read Fifty years since the Moon landing). “A story like many others that describes the genius and passion of many Italians around the world”, reiterated Giorgio Saccoccia, president of the Italian Space Agency (ASI), that supported the project, in collaboration with Nasa, which led to the making of the documentary.

From history to the present day

Towards space and from space we continue to look at our planet. “IT IS very precious. IT IS unique. We need to preserve it not for ourselves, but for the future human race”, pointed out Luca Parmitano, who left on July 20, 2019 (on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing) for the ESA “Beyond” mission (following on from the  2013 ASI “Volare” mission). Parmitano was the first Italian astronaut and the third European to fill the role of commander of the International Space Station and, after 201 days spent in space, he returned to earth on February 6, 2020.

“It was a very special mission, full of important results for our country and for Europe, a success beyond all expectations - commented the president of ASI, Saccoccia -. Parmitano was the first Italian to command the ISS and to be EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) leader in three of the four extravehicular activities, as the protagonist of an unprecedented project to reactivate the AMS-02 (Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer) experiment. His mission activities are a turning point in terms of ability, leadership and advancement of knowledge for future life in space”.

The Earth as seen from above

VIEWED from space, however, the planet that Parmitano described on several occasions is “fragile and beautiful”. “Observing the Earth from a distance gives us a sense of the interconnectedness of our activities on Earth” and, in a pandemic like we are experiencing at the moment, it also makes us feel that “when there is a great goal to achieve, people come together”. The Italian astronaut has taught us an important lesson at a time when the “delicacy of creation” is perceived even more and must be preserved by “observing the quarantine”, not only after a space mission, but also before starting an adventure in the space.


And its beauty can be seen by all in the images sent back by the Cosmo-SkyMed Second Generation (CSG) mission. A satellite Earth observation system run by the Italian Space Agency and the Ministry of Defense which is the flagship of Italian technology and innovation in the world. The data, which were acquired and processed in the Matera Space Center, provide extraordinary images of our planet. And even to a non-expert eye, the innovative features and possibilities of using the system for a wide range of applications are clear. Images that allow you to distinguish water, trees, crops, barren land, glaciers, snow-covered ground and, thanks to a very high spatial resolution, you also have a detailed representation of very complex man-made structures (urban or industrial environments).

Space helps the environment

In short, observing the Earth from space also takes on an increasingly important role in the study of the environment, monitoring natural disasters and using natural resources in a more rational way. And it is satellite data that allow us to monitor not only the state of health of our planet, but also the trend in greenhouse gases, to understand where they form and how they disperse into the atmosphere. More and more precise data, as part of the ESA's Climate Change Initiative program, are collected from four satellites: The European Copernicus program’s Sentinel-5P, Nasa’s Oco-2, the CNSA’s TanSat and Jaxa’s Gosat-2. Four synergistic missions set up to characterize the sources of greenhouse gas, both natural and connected to human activity, on a regional scale and to analyze the seasonal variations, year after year. And having a more comprehensive picture of methane emissions from extraction activities is very important to support the de-carbonization policies implemented in various countries.

But it also from space, and in particular from weather observations, that important information is gathered to arrive at more accurate estimates of the amount of solar energy needed to make  solar panels  or other similar systems work better, both day and night, and with reliable accuracy. This is thanks to a study that puts forward an innovative approach to estimating the optical properties of clouds using satellite data. Published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy, the research is based on the  SCOPE (Spectral Cloud Optical Property Estimation)  method. Among the various properties of clouds, researchers have isolated the quantity of sunlight that reaches our planet. Clouds are essentially masses of condensed water “floating” in the sky. The water can take various forms (liquid droplets or ice crystals of various sizes) that absorb light in different quantities, influencing the optical depth of a cloud. The Scope method simultaneously estimates the thickness of the cloud, the height of the upper part and the optical depth by applying the data collected by the Goes-R satellites to an atmospheric model. 

Using the resources of the Moon

Aerospace and the world of energy continue to intertwine, thus providing useful information for the purposes of environmental sustainability and the energy transition. And all this while looking at the space economy, the new economic frontier beyond the Earth's atmosphere. An engine of economic growth, but also an instrument of foreign policy at a time when the return to the Moon is getting closer. The Artemis program aims to take astronauts back to the Moon in 2024 to establish a permanent human presence on its surface from 2028. And lunar resources, especially water ice, which should be abundant in the polar craters, are very important to create stable outposts on the Moon itself. This would be a preparatory mission for the exploration of Mars, which, according to NASA plans, should start in the 2030s.

All this brings raises the question of the exploitation of the resources of the Moon and other celestial bodies. Interest is thus rekindled in the Outer Space Treaty signed in 1967, which allows the use of these resources, but prohibits almost one hundred states that ratified it from colonizing celestial bodies and using them for military purposes. But attention has also shifted to another important document: the 1979 Moon Treaty, which establishes that the unscientific use of lunar resources should be regulated internationally. The latter treaty was not however ratified by the United States, which only signed the one from 1967. In essence, the Moon would be a place open to everyone, even for commercial purposes. Does this open the way to mining on the Moon as well? The US has given the green light. New delicate scenarios are opening up.