A space telescope, please – but a sustainable one, if possible

Daniel Angerhausen believes that fundamental research is essential, especially in the current crisis. Still, he wonders if we shouldn’t extend the idea of sustainability into the infinite reaches of outer space.
The LIFE space telescope is to consist of several satellites flying in formation. The telescope uses infrared light to study the atmospheres of distant planets. (Visualisations: ETH Zurich)

It is one of the great questions of humanity: “Are we alone in the universe?” Our generation is the first in history to have the technology capable of finding life on other planets. But at the same time, we are the generation facing the greatest challenge in history: keeping the Earth habitable for our civilisation. It is the only planet in the universe where we know for sure that life exists.

About the author

Daniel Angerhausen is Astrophysicist and Astrobiologist at the Institute for Particle Physics and Astrophysics at ETH Zurich.

As temperatures on our planet rise and extreme weather events become more and more frequent, our team at ETH is planning a mission to search for life among the stars. I am often asked whether we have our priorities in order; whether it makes sense to spend so much (tax) money on space exploration when we have other problems on our planet to solve. But I believe there is no contradiction: fundamental research is one of the most important investments we can make in the future – especially now in these times of crisis. But we researchers also have to do our homework when it comes to sustainability.

Here’s my example: The main goal of the upcoming space mission LIFE (Large Interferometer For Exoplanets), which I’m working on at ETH, is to systematically search our galactic neighbourhood for planets that could contain life. LIFE will search for warm and rocky planets within a radius of about 100 light years and test their atmospheres for biosignatures such as combinations of oxygen and methane. Thanks to this new generation of telescopes, we will be able to find out if there is extraterrestrial life in our cosmic backyard.

Research is money well spent...

There’s a lot to be said for sticking with space exploration. It’s not like we’re shovelling millions of dollar bills into rockets just to burn them up in orbit. A large portion of the funding for scientific projects, especially at universities and colleges, goes towards training young researchers. Most of them will leave academia after graduation and make a positive contribution to society in a variety of ways.

«Fundamental research is an important investment in the future – especially now. But we also have to do our homework when it comes to sustainability.»      Daniel Angerhausen

Another large share of the funds goes to the development of new technologies, which often lead to practical commercial applications. We can show that every dollar spent on space exploration flows back to society three to five times over – just not timed with election cycles, unfortunately. The fact that almost every one of us nowadays has a smartphone with a megapixel camera in their pocket with which to surf the internet is due largely to investments in science over the last century. If we are to have any chance at all of preventing the worst consequences of the climate catastrophe, one reason will be that we have done so much research in the past and can now apply these research results in modern technologies. In this respect, fundamental research is a bit like an old-age pension scheme for society.

...but must become more sustainable!

Still, as the climate catastrophe looms, I ask myself how I can justify building a space telescope that will – as of today – probably have a fairly sizable carbon footprint. Is the question of life in outer space really so important that we will allocate some of our limited greenhouse gas budget to it? All while our planet becomes less habitable for our form of society and many other animal and plant species?

When I talk to other researchers who feel the same way, we comfort each other with the thought that some of our research on exoplanet atmospheres may help us to better understand Earth’s atmosphere as well. That the students we teach, who learn on and from a mission like LIFE, will soon develop the technologies that will rescue us from our desperate situation. Or that our thought experiments about extraterrestrial civilisations will make us think about our own behaviour as a planetary society and take it in a new direction.

Ideas from the scientific community in demand

None of this is wrong, but we still need to ask how we can make a mission like LIFE – and fundamental research in general – sustainable, climate-friendly and socially responsible. I don’t have any answers yet, but I hope that some of you reading this can contribute pieces to this vital puzzle. A first step would be a life-cycle assessment for LIFE, perhaps with the help of other researchers from the ETH community. Do you think artificial intelligence, new materials or reforms in research funding could be the key? Do you have experience in making similar projects sustainable? If so, please get in touch. Let’s have this conversation and find some answers!