It’s a perfectly rational question. The short answer is that we need to go to space to help us here on Earth. Satellites have played an enormous role in improving the state of the world, and will do even more as an explosion of technology innovation enables large new fleets of small satellites to be deployed with radical new capabilities.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, or Global Goals), unanimously adopted at the United Nations in 2015, are a great summary of the world’s current challenges. Space is one of many important tools that can be used to help us address them.
In May, the UN held a meeting on Technology Innovation and the Global Goals, and I was asked to address the role of satellites in helping the world achieve the SDGs.
The global coverage of satellites offer a unique, fact-based perspective that can help us overcome our greatest challenges.
Information from these spacecraft can help us improve agricultural yields and protect habitat loss and stop deforestation.
They discovered the hole in the ozone layer and their data today remains key to fighting climate change; and they’ve helped us to connect the world through internet and communication, an intangible service for millions. Satellites in space have done much for us so far and, in the future, they will offer much more.
As the world turns its attention to the Global Goals, we should look systematically at how satellites can help us reach those Earthly targets. Thus, my colleagues and I analysed the goals and found that 12 of the 17 SDGs could be reached with the help of satellites.
Here are seven of the goals and examples of how satellites can help:
Earth imaging satellites
Goal 2: Ending hunger
Satellite imagery can tell crop yield on a pixel by pixel basis - enabling farmers to better decide when to add water or fertiliser and when to harvest.
By imaging the land using special spectral bands (such as near infra-red) we can develop a vegetation index that represents crop vigour and productivity.
Agricultural land represents 37% of the land area of earth and satellites are uniquely capable of collecting this data across such a vast territory. For example, my own company, Planet Labs, images the whole land mass of Earth daily to help with these efforts.
Goal 6: Clean water
Satellite images enable broad and efficient monitoring of reservoir water levels, providing early warning of shortages and uniform data across different countries that share water sources, increasing transparency and consistency in water delivery.
Goal 13: Climate action
Often the earliest and clearest indications of climate change can be observed in very remote regions of the world. Earth-observation satellites enable global monitoring of deforestation, pollution levels in bodies of water, status of ice caps and desertification, and enable early and immediate action to prevent these events.
Goal 14: Life below water
Satellites can help track and stop illegal fishing by pairing vessel Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders - which show the location of legal fishing vessels and are legally required to be switched on - with up-to-date satellite imagery, enabling the identification of vessels operating without AIS signals and which are more likely to be engaged in illegal fishing activity.
Goal 15: Life on land
Satellites can help monitor and protect wildlife habitats by identifying indicators of impending development or destruction and alerting authorities to engage early and stop it.
Goals 3 and 4: Good health and well-being, and quality education
Fifty percent of Earth’s 7.5billion people have access to the internet. A global network of communications satellites, such as those being developed by SpaceX and OneWeb, could enable internet connectivity to a majority of people, especially those in remote regions where development is scarce.
With access to the internet comes increased knowledge sharing, the benefits of the best doctors and teachers via tele-medicine and education, and greater communication.
It’s clear satellites can help many of the Global Goals. Leaders in governments, at companies and NGOs should make use of these tools in their investments and decision making to help us achieve the SDGs as fast as possible.
On July 9, 1965, the US ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, evoked a concept of a “Spaceship Earth” - later popularised by the author Buckminster Fuller - that would motivate thinking on sustainability for decades to come.
“We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserve of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and I will say, the love we give our fragile craft.”
Why not solve the problems here on Earth before going to space? Well, we need to go to space because we are on Spaceship Earth and, to take care of it, we need to understand it and understand better how we interact with it.
* This article forms part of a series of posts by the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Space Technologies.
* Will Marshall is chief executive officer, Planet Labs