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Practical Magic

Shooting stars are the next phase of space tech

Space tech company ALE wants to monitor and evaluate climate data via human-made meteor showers.

A picture of a night sky alight with shooting stars

Image via Shutterstock/ Geermy

Shooting stars are officially a member of the climate mitigation arsenal. But wait, you may think, aren’t shooting stars just meteors burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere? How can that help mitigate the impact of climate change? It’s a fair question that Tokyo-based company ALE hopes to answer through the official launch of its project, SKY CANVAS. SKY CANVAS aims to collect vital climate data by deploying human-made shooting stars and observing their impact within the mesosphere (one of the five layers of the Earth’s atmosphere) while appearing to us Earth-bound terrestrials as a meteor shower. 

ALE developed three satellites (two of which are in orbit) that can house tiny, metal-based pellets, each around 1 centimeter large. When the satellites reach the optimal position — 249 miles up into the atmosphere — automatic controls will release the pellets. As the pellets, coined "meteor particles" by ALE, enter Earth’s atmosphere, they transform into high-temperature plasma. It is this plasma that then emits the light of the shooting star and mimics a meteor shower. 

That plasma is also the key to measuring hard-to-capture atmospheric data from the mesosphere, the least understood layer of Earth’s atmosphere. This is precisely why scientists on the ground intend to monitor the path and light emissions of the plasma, compiling key metrics including wind speed, atmospheric composition and other specific aspects that contribute to weather conditions. 

While much of the information regarding what data, specifically, ALE intends to collect is unclear, the ultimate purpose of the launch, according to ALE, is to catalyze climate research and mitigate natural disasters caused by climate change. The official launch is scheduled for some time in 2025. 

ALE’s shooting stars are not the only example of space tech in development. In the summer of 2022, French aeronautical engineer Frédérick Pasternak developed a "prism" that can capture radiation readings, "temperature, humidity, and concentration of air above the ground," according to the World Economic Forum. The prism was attached to one of the three satellites in the Meteorological Operational Satellite Program of Europe and will aid the organization in identifying atmospheric gasses. 

In the private sector, analytics company Spire uses nano-satellites to conduct thousands of atmospheric measurements each day. Among the data it monitors is pressure, humidity and temperature. Similarly, space data company Pixxel is building a network of hyperspectral earth imaging satellites with the aim of monitoring and predicting global phenomena. And as of March, Pixxel received a 5-year contract from the National Reconnaissance Office to equip it with remote sensing capabilities via modeling, simulation and data evaluation. 

Why is gathering this data important?

Natural disasters will increase in frequency and intensity as climate change progresses, according to the World Meteorological Organization. In 2022 alone, the United States experienced 18 disaster events that totaled over $1 billion in losses. That same year, global climate-driven weather events caused economic losses of $313 billion. Increased access to crucial data can influence policy and global markets. 

Humanity’s ability to prepare and mitigate these disasters will only improve from accurate measurements of things such as wind speed, atmospheric composition and different greenhouse gas levels (think carbon monoxide, methane and other compounds). 

On a larger level, space tech that enables data gathering allows scientists to differentiate between natural levels of climate variability and humanity-exasperated conditions. A 2020 report released by Frontier Technologies stated, "satellite measurements of the Earth’s changing temperature, sea levels, atmospheric gasses, decline in ice and forest cover…are some of the key ways of obtaining the scientific data needed to…predict [Earth’s] climatological future." Data is insight. Without it, we’re fighting the climate crisis with one hand behind our backs.

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