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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
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
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
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
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.