A column by Marco Fuchs: thoughts about time and space

Increased funding for space technologies benefits climate protection

September 23, 2019. The past weekend has once again highlighted the issue that is currently of the greatest concern for a large part of the world community, showing what the most pressing questions of our times are: At the UN Climate Summit in New York, heads of state and scientists from all over the world met to discuss how the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement can be achieved more quickly. This had been preceded by countless demonstrations organized by the “Fridays for Future” movement. Under the motto “Global Climate Strike” the movement aims to exert more pressure on politicians all over the world to address this question that impacts the future of humanity. In Berlin alone, more than 250,000 people took part in the demonstrations. On the same day, after long negotiations, the German government in Berlin presented its climate pact for Germany, which seeks to provide incentives for more climate protection by adopting over 60 individual measures.

In Bremerhaven the efforts were even more specific: Led by the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, the international polar expedition “Mosaic”, an acronym for “Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate”, departed from Tromsö in Norway headed for the North Pole. The purpose of this mission is to find out more about the extent to which the global climate system is being influenced by the melting of the Arctic Ocean.

17 nations are taking part in “Mosaic”. The Germans are footing around half of the total bill of 140 million euros. Participants have already compared the expedition to the International Space Station ISS. “The fact that so many nations are coming together despite their rivalry marks a major step forward,” writes German daily “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, quoting a US cloud researcher. I really like this analogy because it aptly links the efforts of the AWI expedition on the Earth with the efforts being taken in satellite-based climate and environmental monitoring in space.

Earth observation missions provide an unbiased view from above

No matter whether they are used for military reconnaissance, coastal surveillance or for the observation of changes in methane gases in the air, Earth observation missions in space always have one thing in common: they provide an unbiased view from above. By viewing the planet from great heights with Earth observation satellites, humanity receives unambiguous facts. Our culture is ultimately based on knowledge and empiricism. We realize that we don’t know everything, that observation brings further insight and that this insight may possibly force us to change our behavior. With the latest technology in satellite-based Earth observation, these changes can now be measured and tracked precisely. This enables scientists to better assess the consequences of our actions on Earth and thus provide policy makers with recommendations for countermeasures.

In this case, the deeper purpose of all space activities is to observe changes on the surface of the planet on a broader basis. Because in the end it always boils down to proving or disproving predictions or theories. To this end, you have to observe and collect facts. This is definitely true of the environment and the climate.

For this reason, global climate protection is no longer conceivable without technical assistance from space. Space activities play a key role in this respect. It is also necessary to measure whether climate protection measures have the desired effect. According to an ESA survey, more than 50 percent of the main climate variables can only be measured using space technologies. It is hard to imagine how many sensors would be needed to obtain all this data at measuring points on the surface of the Earth. Observation from space therefore also provides a very reliable data basis for political decisions.

ESA Ministerial Conference will set the course for the next steps in space-based climate protection

Accordingly, the next ESA Ministerial Conference in November 2019 will be concentrating heavily on space applications for climate protection and environmental monitoring at precisely the right time, as it will be deciding on the next generation of state-of-the-art Earth observation satellites for the European Copernicus program. Various missions within the framework of the EU space program are to provide new insights: The CO2-M mission will make it possible to detect regions with high CO2 emissions, thus making a significant contribution to monitoring the achievement of the Paris climate objectives. The Land Surface Temperature Monitoring (LSTM) mission will measure changes in the Earth’s surface temperature, particularly in coastal regions. Many other interesting missions will be on the agenda for approval in Seville in November, and from the perspective of OHB and the entire German space industry it is gratifying to see that the German delegation has already announced that it will be particularly committed to Earth observation this year. I am convinced that environmental monitoring will gain a permanence and complexity that clearly distinguishes it from all other areas and that the German government is making progress here, because what many people do not realize is that the government is the decisive driver. The reason for this is simple: the government is the largest player in the space industry, operating on both sides of the equation. On the one hand, it is an important customer providing people with important space applications, such as satellite navigation or satellite-based weather observation. On the other, it funds space travel via technology promotion programs to preserve, expand or implement important skills in this area.

In Germany, the National Space and Innovation Program provides the framework for developing and testing the necessary technologies. This program lays the foundations for the competitiveness of the German space industry. As I am firmly convinced that in the medium term Earth observation technology will gain a significance that we cannot even begin to comprehend today, a rapid and relevant increase in the budget of the National Space and Innovation Program from the current figure of around EUR 300 million to EUR 500 million per year is a logical step. New technologies for satellite-based Earth observation combined with the possibilities offered by artificial intelligence have the potential for providing previously unimagined insights and perhaps even for creating new business models. Together with France, Germany is a European leader in the field of aerospace – and that’s a state of affairs we would like to preserve. Together with many other companies and institutions in the German space community, I am therefore seeking a rapid and significant increase in funding for research and development.

Personal details:

Born in 1962, Marco Fuchs studied law in Berlin, Hamburg and New York. He worked as an attorney in New York and Frankfurt am Main from 1992 to 1995. In 1995, he joined OHB, the company that his parents had built up. He has been Chief Executive Officer of OHB SE since 2000 and of OHB System AG since 2011. Marco Fuchs is married and has two children.