Whether to spend money on space exploration or to use it to solve severe problems on Earth, such as climate change and food insecurity, is a contentious debate. But one argument in favor of space exploration highlights the benefits of actually helping to study, monitor, and solve serious problems like climate change and food production.
As the access to space increases, the potential for earthly benefits directly related to space exploration grows exponentially.
For example, agriculture has been greatly improved by applying space advances to Earth’s problems. It is now increasingly likely that food was produced with the help of space technologies, such as freeze-dried food, or by monitoring crops from space observatories.
Agricultural land monitoring
Satellite tracking is probably the most realized benefit of space for agriculture. Like watchful eyes in the sky, satellites watch day and night over farmland worldwide. Specialized sensors on relevant satellites (such as NASA’s Landsat, the European Space Agency’s Envisat, and the Canadian Space Agency’s RADARSAT) monitor various parameters pertinent to agriculture.
Sensors monitoring soil moisture can tell us when and how quickly soils are drying out, helping to direct more efficient irrigation on a regional scale. Weather satellites help predict droughts, floods, rainfall, and plant disease outbreaks.
Satellite data helps us predict threats of food shortages or crop failures.
They are not just inanimate machines that live in space; humans have managed to survive and grow plants in low Earth orbit aboard several spacecraft and stations. Space is the ultimate “harsh environment” in which life, including plants, can exist due to such new stressors as cosmic rays and lack of gravity.
Space biologist Anna-Lisa Paul describes plants as being able to “reach into their genetic toolkit and redesign the tools they need” to adapt to the new space environment. New tools and behaviors expressed by plants in spaceflight conditions could be used to solve problems facing crops in Earth’s changing climate.
NASA scientists sent cotton seeds to the International Space Station to understand how cotton roots grow without gravity. The research findings will help develop cotton varieties with deeper root systems that allow more efficient access to and absorption of soil water in drought-prone areas.