Circular Space

For a long time all I wanted was to study the planet Mars. The satellite images from orbiters around Mars were –  and still are – mesmerizing. But after traveling our own planet I got more and more interested in this special place we call home. I therefore shifted my focus from planetary exploration to the field of sustainability, ‘down to Earth’. In 2015 I looked at landing sites for a human mission to Mars, while in 2018 I looked at the best locations for municipalities in the Netherlands to place wind turbines. Same technology (GIS), different planet. I also started to realize that space exploration and sustainability might be connected.


In 2017 I gave a presentation about this connection at the Social Impact Factory in Utrecht titled “Circular Space: Investigating the connection between the circular economy and space exploration“. After this presentation I came into contact with the AstroPlant project and later that year I attended their AstroPlant #spacefarming Challenge. Here I learned about the MELiSSA project from ESA. More on that below.


In 2018 I got an email from a journalist from Ballena Blanca, a Spanish Economic and Environmental magazine. It is an independent magazine for the general public specializing in environmental issues and sustainable economy with a section in the national newspaper The magazine publishes extensively researched feature articles and is read by a significant number of policymakers, scientists and researchers involved in this area. The journalist was writing an article about how space research can contribute and is helping to develop new ways for circular economy and sustainability of Earth. She asked me five questions, my answers are provided below. The article was published in the December 2018 issue of the magazine.


Q1: How can space research contribute to the development of circular economy on Earth?
Scarcity of resources is what in my opinion currently links space exploration and a circular economy. For example, water is scarce in space. This led Mehrdad Mahdjoubi to develop a closed-loop shower system while working on the NASA’s Journey to Mars project. He then founded the company Orbital Systems to commercialise the idea and have more impact here on Earth.
Outer space however is not scarce in resources, we just haven’t developed ways to access them yet. Valuable resources may be found on the moon, in asteroids and on Mars. Companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries are planning to harvest these resources. Asteroid mining should in my opinion not increase the take-make-waste linear economy. But it could possibly aid the transition to a CO2 neutral energy system. Wind turbines, solar panels and batteries currently need metals that are rare on Earth. Maybe we can find these in outer space, increasing the amount of metals in the loop?


Q2: Do you know any specific projects that are using space technology for circular economy? Do you use it in your work or know about it in Utrecht?
The ESA MELiSSA project is I think a great example: “a space research program aiming to develop an artificial ecosystem for regenerative life support systems for long-term space missions to lunar bases or flights to Mars.” A MELiSSA spin off is SEMiLLA, a toilet plus water treatment in a sea container. A SEMiLLA sanitation hub was recently part of the Climate Planet visiting my hometown Utrecht.


Q3: In your blog sometimes you seem to suggest that we will be able to create an Earth environment on other planets such as Mars (terraforming Mars), however, current research at ESA or NASA seems to be working more in creating closed-loop environments for astronauts so they can create food and oxygen using their own waste. Do you really think we will be able to live one day outside the Earth?
The MELiSSA project I mentioned earlier is indeed such a closed-loop environment. My personal view about terraforming is that if we are able to alter our own planet as we are doing now (e.g. climate change) then we may also be able to alter another planet, like Mars. Climate change is of course a side effect of our economic development, on Mars we would need to alter the atmosphere on purpose. I’m not saying we should do it, but considering how much we currently influence our own planet (we soon may be living in the Anthropocene) I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future we start terraforming Mars.
I personally have good hopes we can design the technology for humans to live beyond Earth. But my hope will be that space exploration will also help us to better appreciate our own planet and respect its planetary boundaries.


Q4: How seriously are governments and scientists considering this idea in case an Earth disaster occurs? Is it considered a real option if climate change get worse?
These days space exploration seems to be more like a race between inspired entrepreneurs. Take for example Elon Musk with SpaceX who wants to go to Mars. Or Amazon founder Jeff Bezos who started the rocket company Blue Origin. If governments are actually considering terraforming Mars I do not know, but it wouldn’t make a difference for most of us anyway. Elon Musk talks about getting at least a million people to Mars, not billions. So most of us are probably stuck here on Spaceship Earth. Too much focus on a “Planet B” diverts the attention from the pressing issues on our own planet. It might provide a business as usual mentality and a reluctance to act against climate change. This doesn’t mean I’m against space exploration. We should definitely do both, tackle climate change and go into space. But space is probably not going to be for everyone, while in principle all of us can work to make our own planet a little bit better.


Q5: Space research could contribute to the development of circular economy on Earth or to the idea that we can continue exploiting more resources on Earth and outside via some practices like space mining. How should we manage space research to avoid we commit the same mistakes that have created climate change on Earth?
Since the end of WWII the global economy started to grow very fast, at the expense of the natural environment. Decoupling the economic growth from material use has been unsuccessful so far. This continuous growth is unsustainable as our planet is of course of a finite size. So will we be able to create a full-grown economy where no more (or a very limited amount) of raw material is needed? That is a future vision of a circular economy where all the materials used in the economy stay in a loop. My country the Netherlands wants to be fully circular in 2050. So currently we know the space exploration effort has a positive influence on the sustainability effort, take for example the closed-loop shower example and other space exploration spinoffs (1, 2). But my hope would be that this will also go the other way around. That if we move to other planets we will take this circular economy knowledge with us and design Circular Cities on Mars and beyond. This might help to avoid future mistakes.

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