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Fuel Poverty News

If Earth Were Powered From Space
13 Oct 2010

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Space is an untapped resource, Dr. Maclean told the 21st World Energy Congress, an international gathering of about 5,000 delegates who convened in Montreal last month to address the Earth’s energy needs.

“The important thing to recognize is there is more energy out there on the head of a pin than you can imagine,” he said in an opening speech, “and it could power the Earth for years to come.”

But Dr. Maclean told the conference, space is not important only as a potential source of energy: The exploration of space could play a major role in the search for and mapping of conventional and alternative terrestrial energy supplies.

Dr. MacLean, who himself went into orbit aboard NASA shuttles in 1992 and 2006, said space-based science could also help to clarify global climate conditions.

Physicists still have a long way to go to understand phenomena like protostellar systems, and neutron stars, in which the mass of a sun can be condensed into a diameter of 20 kilometers, or 12 miles. Yet, he said, the search for understanding could help resolve the intractable problem of energy shortages on Earth.

“The solution is out there,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s just a matter of understanding it.”

Space agencies can also help to eradicate energy poverty in more immediate ways, by collecting and making available satellite-derived data.

Space-based observation platforms are compiling vast amounts of highly detailed data that can contribute to finding new energy sources, monitoring climate change and tracking energy use and supply.

There are now 70 satellites “considering the future of the Earth,” he said, and in 10 years that number is likely to rise 300. “The type, volume and quality of data from space has vastly improved over the last two decades,” he said, and data processing has made dramatic advances. “In a way you almost can’t keep up with it.”

James R. Drummond, a researcher at Dalhousie University’s Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science in Halifax, Nova Scotia, whose work includes measuring atmospheric content from space, is equally excited about these developments.

“If you had told me when I was a young scientist in the 1970s what we would be doing in 2010, I’d have been amazed,” he said. Dr. Drummond is involved with Measurement of Pollution in the Troposphere, or Mopitt, a Canadian instrument launched into orbit aboard Terra, NASA’s first Earth Observing System spacecraft, in 1999.

Mopitt monitors carbon monoxide emissions and their movement, which can be used to track uncontrolled burning on the planet. This summer it was used to chart the emissions from wildfires in and around Russia, confirming that local pollution sources have global effects.

Other compounds, like carbon dioxide, and their variations over the terrestrial surface, can be followed in a similar way. Carbon monoxide measurements are more accurate, but tracking the principal greenhouse gases from space is a technique that holds promise.

“It’s an area of measurement that’s just beginning to be feasible,” said Dr. Drummond. “It challenges our technology to the absolute limit.”

Data from the primary satellite being used to trace carbon dioxide, the Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite, or Gosat, launched by Japan last year, is just now becoming available. Ultimately, the data will help to monitor and verify compliance with international agreements and regulations on greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Monitoring the composition of the atmosphere from space complements ground monitoring, Dr. Drummond said. Terrestrial monitoring can observe how much pollution is released into the atmosphere and from where, but cannot follow the movement of trace elements. Space monitoring shows where trace elements go but can be less good at showing precisely where they come from.


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Source: MMC News