2. The Challenge of Planetary Management

The threat to Earth’s ecosystem makes it vital that Europe be a leading force in the worldwide effort to ensure sustainability of our civilisation on the planet. The threat to Earth’s ecosystem makes it vital that Europe be a leading force in the worldwide effort to ensure sustainability of our civilisation on the planet. Europe’s prime responsibility is to ensure a benign atmospheric and climatic environment for its people, and indeed humankind, as a basis for sustained economic, social and cultural advancement. Despite rapid progress, notably through space techniques, understanding of the complex machinery of the planet is far from satisfactory. The multiple interactions between its components, continents, oceans and atmosphere, and human activities, are not yet fully understood and modelled. There are multiple threats to the ecosystem’s delicate balance: natural and man-made disasters, degradation of the environment , depletion of the ozone layer, climate change, solar flares and even cosmic collisions. The nature of most of these threats is such as to require global solutions.

Action 9. Determine the potential contribution of space systems to the enforcement of international regulations on environment and climate, in particular the release of greenhouse gases.

Climate Change and Environmental Monitoring

Global warming, melting of the continental ice sheet, sea-level rises and desertification are causing alarming changes in living conditions, which may even endanger large populations. Failure to understand the causes of climate change, both natural and man-made, could have fatal consequences. Present analyses indicate that modifications to the current way of life are needed to avoid disastrous changes in the 21st Century. International regulations approved, trusted and adhered to by all nations are obviously needed, founded on a massive increase in our the understanding of solar-terrestrial relationships as well as of the natural processes controlling the functioning of planet Earth. Multi-scale monitoring of the environment is urgently required, using space-based, airborne and ground-based means. The role of space in planetary management will continue to grow, from data collection for modelling aimed at a better understanding, to global monitoring and fair observance of internationally agreed regulations (see Action 9). The issue is all the more urgent as the time constants associated with the thermal inertia of the oceans and the decay of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are so long that any countermeasure will only start to have an effect after a substantial number of years. Only from space can a transparent and coherent picture of environmental change be provided to convince nations and individuals of this urgency. Europe must continue to develop its own programme, coordinated internationally, to study climate change and its environmental impact. This should not be done in isolation, but exclusive reliance on data provided by others would lead to yet another form of apparently convenient but dangerous dependence. The main goal is to ensure that Governments take informed decisions based upon scientific fact. The costs of failure to act in time or of acting wrongly will far outweigh the necessary investments in the required global monitoring system.

Action 10. Evaluate the feasibility of spaceborne early-warning systems, especially for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Human fatalities due to major earthquakes this century

Year Location Magnitude Fatalities
1906 Valparaiso 8.6 22 000
1908 Messina 7.5 83 000
1915 Avezzano 7.5 30 000
1920 Gansu 8.6 180 000
1923 Yokohama 8.3 143 000
1927 Nan Shan 8.3 200 000
1932 Gansu 7.6 70 000
1935 Quetta 7.5 60 000
1939 Chillan 8.3 28 000
1939 Erzincan 7.9 30 000
1970 Northern Peru 7.7 66 794
1976 Guatemala 7.5 22 778
1976 Tangshan 8.2 650 000
1978 Tabas 7.7 25 000
1988 Northwest Armenia 6.8 55 000
1990 Northern Iran 7.7 35 000
Natural Disasters

Pressure from continued population growth leads to the ever-increasing settlement of vulnerable areas. The human and economic impact of natural disasters on the planet has thus increased dramatically; in the last three decades, the costs associated with major natural disasters have risen by a factor of 5. This is partly due to current agricultural practices and growing urban pressure, but is also made worse by climatic phenomena such as El Niņo. Space data are already playing an essential role in disaster prevention, through their integration into Geographical Information Systems, which can thereby be frequently and inexpensively updated. They are also being used in combination with g round and airborne data to provide risk-vulnerability maps. Space-based communications are crucial during a natural disaster when the local ground infrastructure has been destroyed, and observation and navigation services are required for the optimal management of rescue activities. Space systems are not yet being used to their full potential for disaster management, as they are for rescue at sea for example. Research into the provision of early warnings by detecting the precursors of natural disasters has progressed during the last decade. Some methods which rely on space data, such as radar interferometry, can detect the first minute displacements that precede a volcanic eruption, and tectonic shifts that may lead to earthquakes. Further development is needed to improve the reliability and sensitivity of these systems, as well as the analysis and prediction methods (see Action 10). Combined with other detection methods, this could lead to the development of early-warning systems for a fraction of the costs incurred due to major disasters. This is yet another example of an increase in basic scientific knowledge leading to applications with enormous potential.

Space Weather

Space weather is a recently coined term for a multitude of interactions between the Sun, the interplanetary environment and Earth. Solar eruptions damage space systems and endanger astronauts. Large solar eruptions also cause strong perturbations on Earth, in communications, radar operations and navigation systems, and have led to massive power failures as well as damage to pipelines at high latitudes. Basic scientific understanding of all of these space-weather factors affecting the planet must be consolidated, and operational space systems providing the necessary warnings established on an international basis (see Action 11). Very little is known as yet about the terrestrial effects of long-term changes in solar activity. Studies of solar-terrestrial coupling mechanisms should therefore receive greater emphasis.

Long-term growth of space activities cannot be envisaged if the debris problem is not tackled.

Action 11. Improve the understanding of space weather and the early warning of hazardous conditions.

Space Debris

The growth in space activities, coupled with the use of today’s technologies based on disposable launchers, is resulting in a considerable amount of residual hardware in orbit. The problem is exacerbated by collisions between the debris items themselves. The long-term growth of space activities cannot be envisaged if the debris problem is not tackled. International regulations will have to be implemented, and Europe should be associated with their control. Techniques for destroying debris will also have to be assessed, as a key issue in the mid- and longer term (see Action 12). Avoidance of space debris should also become a major motivation for the development of fully reusable space transportation systems, in order to avoid leaving inert and potentially dangerous objects, such as upper stages, in orbit with each payload.

The cosmic threat to life on Earth from asteroid collision is real and cannot be ignored.


Action 12. Improve Europe’s knowledge of space debris, its forecasting, modelling and removal.

Impact of a Large Asteroid on Earth

Understanding the threat posed to Earth by incoming objects from space is of more than academic interest. Evolution has been periodically punctuated with massive extinctions due to the impacts of cosmic bodies comparable in size to Comet Shoemaker-Levy, which hit Jupiter in 1994. The Tungunska impact in 1908 could have destroyed any metropolis, and impacts of this kind statistically occur once every 100 to 300 years. This cosmic threat to life on Earth is real and cannot be ignored. Europe owes it to future generations to make an assessment of the specific risks and probabilities, as well as of potential countermeasures. As a pre-requisite, a detailed and regularly updated catalogue of objects that pose a threat must be compiled. Europe should also get actively involved in risk evaluation, detection and intervention, leading up to a public debate about a future response to this cosmic threat (see Action 13)


Action 13. Assess the risk of collision with near-Earth objects and possible countermeasures.