How Space 4.0 is pushing the boundaries of the final frontier

Frederic Grandmont

February 15th, 2022


Frederic Grandmont 

Space & Defense Systems, Measurement & Analytics

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Space exploration has long provided a fertile ground for combining imagination with innovation. Frederic Grandmont of ABB’s Space & Defense Systems business, looks at how the entry of private companies into the space sector is opening exciting new possibilities for discovering more both about the universe around us and the world we live on.

The last decade has seen changing times for the space industry. Where projects were once the sole preserve of Government agencies, in the era of what is being heralded as Space 4.0 the field is now wide open to anyone with the courage, ideas and means to make things happen.

Joining the established – and emerging – national space agencies are a growing number of private enterprises.  A host of new players such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, are all vying for a slice of the growing market for space-based services.

While many of the founders of these companies would cite events such as the moon landing as their inspiration, another motivator is undoubtedly the opportunity to gather data to transform into commercial opportunity, from setting up faster, more efficient communications networks to measuring greenhouse gas concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Paving the way for a new era of data services

This is where the real benefits of Space 4.0 come in. The opening up of the territory to private sector companies with the ability to develop and launch technologies into space more quickly and at less cost has helped to overcome many of the hurdles that have existed in previous years.

With launching into space now comparatively cheaper and easier than before, it has also become possible for companies to think on a much bigger scale. SpaceX recently launched its first batch of Starlink satellites as part of its drive to create a space-based high-performance communications network. In the next five years, the company aims to create a constellation of several thousands of satellites by the mid-2020s.

Once this network – and similar ones planned by other national and private sector organisations – have been established, it will transform the possibilities for digital services anywhere around the world, feeding them with the data needed for them to add real value, including helping to solve some of humanity’s most pressing problems.

One enabling factor has been the expanded range of options for launching equipment into space, overcoming the need to wait for slots to become available with national space agencies. Customers can now choose from conventional pad-based launches such as those offered by SpaceX and Blue Origin, or can opt for alternative methods like Virgin Orbit’s altitude launch platform, where rockets are launched from under the wing of a converted airliner.

From alien civilisations to life on Earth 

Ever since the first missions in the 1960s, humanity’s eternal quest for life on other planets has seen several high-profile satellite and probe missions being launched, each equipped with the technology to help gather data on a wide range of parameters.

As time has gone on, this technology has become ever more sophisticated, greatly increasing the quantity and quality of the data being gathered to bring us ever closer to our goal.

One notable area of development has been in the field of spectral analysis, which involves using infrared light to help measure the composition of gases around planets in order to ascertain whether they have the right ingredients to support life.

While this search continues to be ongoing, there has also been a growing realisation that the space-based technologies we are using to find out about the worlds around us could be equally well-applied to learning more about the one we’re living on.

As a result, recent years have seen a growing demand for Earth observation data, where satellites are used to map the Earth’s surface, and what’s underneath it, using the same approaches as those used to map other planets and celestial bodies. By mapping the Earth’s surface in intricate detail, these satellites have helped to generate a wealth of data that can be used for commercial and non-commercial purposes.

One example of where satellite data is proving beneficial is the detection of water leakage. In contrast to ground-based technologies such as electromagnetic flowmeters or acoustic devices that are largely restricted to localised monitoring and measurement of water leaks, satellite imagery can cover several thousand square kilometres at once. Using this imagery, it is possible to detect unusual concentrations of water that might be indicative of a leak or some other problem, which can then be pinpointed for further investigation.

The potential that this presents for improved detection and rectification of water leaks has led to a growing number of water companies deploying satellite imagery as part of their leakage management toolkits.

Sniffing out emissions

Another example of where satellite technology is delivering benefits is in tracing and quantifying atmospheric emissions, either from industrial or natural sources, that can impact on the environment. Many of the satellites currently in orbit that measure the Earth’s atmosphere use ABB’s Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectrometer technology to help collect data on a wide range of direct and indirect parameters, including moisture, pollution, atmospheric chemistry and temperature and humidity that can affect weather patterns.

In simple terms, FTIR spectrometers separate an infrared light beam into its constituent colours and reveal the amount of energy for each. While the human eye cannot sense infrared light, this is where most of the action happens when it comes to detecting a molecular fingerprint left on a light beam. Molecules, and matter in the broader sense, either emit, transmit or reflect infrared light in different ratios with respect to colours in the same way that grass has a different colour than rocks given the differences in their molecule content. Using sunlight reflected from the Earth surface or emitted by warm molecules, satellites equipped with ABB spectrometers can probe what is happening on the Earth from a 600 km distance.

The measurements that can be collected by satellites using the FTIR spectroscopy technique provide valuable data for a range of different applications here on Earth.

With climate change and global warming very much on the agenda, perhaps the most important of these applications is the monitoring of greenhouse gases that can affect global temperatures and weather patterns.  

ABB’s FTIR technology in the form of the spectral separation engine, more commonly referred to as an interferometer, is used to help keep a watchful eye on this persistent and ever accelerating CO2 level increase through 24/7 worldwide measurements from the Greenhouse gases Observing SATellite-2 (GOSAT-2) launched by Japan in October 2018 and its older brother GOSAT-1 launched in 2009. With the GOSAT pair each orbiting the Earth 15 times a day, the ABB interferometers help gather more than 100,000 precise measurements of carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, carbon monoxide and oxygen in the atmosphere.

The resulting data is used by Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Study (NIES), to produce detailed maps highlighting greenhouse gas distribution across the globe and any strong seasonal variations. With these maps, scientists are also able to pinpoint where the gases are originating from. The data being collected by the GOSATs is proving useful for confirming country emissions, enabling action to be taken backed up by irrefutable evidence of the contents and extent of their emissions.

With urgent action needing to be taken to minimise any further rises in greenhouse gases, the data gathered by GOSAT is also proving invaluable in helping the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPCC) to shape global policy on emissions reduction.

Going forward

If the past years have been about humanity’s future in space, one of the drivers of Space 4.0 going forward must be about humanity’s future on Earth.

The era of Space 4.0 offers massive potential for space technology to help improve our quality of life, particularly in the area of Earth observation.

As the involvement of more private sector companies in space projects helps to reduce cost and drive innovation, new possibilities will arise for us to find out more about how we can help to reduce our impact on the planet and make scarce resources go further.

By coupling the increased availability of environmental data with the possibilities of an enhanced global communications network, there is the real opportunity to get people to change their behaviour.   

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