How Can Satellites Help Wildlife Conservation?
Credit: NASA

How Can Satellites Help Wildlife Conservation?

03/12/2021Written by Michael Darch

How can the space industry help wildlife conservation and the fight against climate change on planet Earth?

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mascot Telescope Right
A Tiger in Thailand. Credit: WWF

4 December is World Wildlife Conservation Day. Started in 2012 by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it’s a day that highlights conservation efforts around the world, looking at how we can help to protect animals and the natural world. In November Glasgow hosted COP26, an event where world leaders met to work out new agreements to bring down global carbon emissions, so this year’s World Wildlife Conservation Day feels especially relevant. 

So, how can the space industry help with the fight against climate change? At first it might seem a silly question. How can an industry focused on outer space help us preserve life here on Earth? Well one way the space industry is helping monitor and mitigate climate change might surprise you and that’s with satellites!  

Satellites

Satellites
Sputnik 1 model at the National Space Centre

Satellites are devices we launch into space that orbit the Earth and are primarily used for observation and communication. For example, it is satellite technology orbiting Earth right now that allows the GPS on our phones to work.  

The first satellite ever launched was from the Soviet Union back in 1957 and it was called Sputnik. As well as kickstarting the Space Race, it also helped us learn a lot about our planet Earth. As it was orbiting our planet, it was broadcasting a radio signal which gave us new information about the layer of the Earth’s upper atmosphere called the ionosphere. 

Since then, we’ve been launching more and more satellites into space and currently there are around 7,500 in orbit around Earth. Satellites are complex bits of kit, all designed to do extremely specific tasks, including a category called Earth Observation (EO). 

Earth Observation

Earth Observation
Illustration of TOPEX/Poseidon over Earth. Credit: NASA
Earth Observation
RADARSAT 2 satellite

EOs are satellites specifically designed to look down and study the Earth’s surface. This makes them extremely useful for a variety of tasks: mapping regions of the Earth accurately, monitoring the weather around the globe and tracking atmospheric gas levels. All of these can help with conservation efforts.  

In 1992 NASA and CNES launched TOPEX/Poseidon, a satellite that was designed to study the ocean. It gave extremely accurate measurements of the height of sea levels as well as temperature readings. This was monumental as it gave us information on oceans that had been impossible to obtain before, including new information on rising sea levels; a massive side effect of global warming.  

The RADARSAT 2 satellite, launched by Canada in 2007, is capable of monitoring weather, day or night, through clouds and smoke. It can detect change over time which can be compared against its previous images. This allows us to map biomass and uncover the level of damage caused by forest fires. It allows us to track large areas of natural habitats that beforehand were inaccessible. 

So, how do they work? Well, it’s all about the orbit. EO satellites typically have what is called a Sun-synchronous orbit. This is an orbit around Earth which passes near the poles. They travel around the Earth at a more vertical angle. This is useful because the surface illumination angle on the planet underneath it will be nearly the same every time the satellite is overhead. 

Tracking Animals From Space

Tracking Animals From Space
Turtle. Credit: Getty
Tracking Animals From Space
Monitoring wildlife migration from space

The International Space Station has also been helping! The crew recently turned on a new tracking system designed to help monitor birds and small flying creatures down on Earth. This is all part of the ICARUS initiative, a project that started development back in 2002, with the mission of being able to track smaller creatures from space.  

It’s not just birds that can be monitored from space. Images provided by EO satellites are being used to fight against poaching animals including elephants and black rhinos whilst satellite tag data is being used to study turtle migration patterns in the Pacific. 

With climate change being such a serious issue that the world is facing, it’s more important now, than ever, that we all do our part to help our environment. So can you help? Well one way you can help is by checking out Citizen Science projects like Zooniverse’s Penguin tracker. This website offers a modern solution for animal tracking and it uses remote volunteers to help count penguin numbers through satellite images of penguin colonies. 

Operation Earth

Operation Earth

We’ve been working hard to look at how we can look after our planet here at the National Space Centre. We’ve continued our collaboration with Operation Earth, a national programme created by the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres in partnership with Natural Environment Research Council, that encourages children and families to engage with the science of climate change and think about our impact on the planet. 

Climate change can cause a lot of anxiety and if you are coming to the end of the year feeling a bit hopeless about the whole thing then let me reassure you. It’s true that humanity has never faced such large problems before, but I am always comforted by the fact we’ve never had as many smart people living on Earth, with access to the best technology and tools than ever before. 

If anyone could solve these big problems it’s us here and now. 

About the author: Mike Darch is a Space Communications Presenter at the National Space Centre.