High Resolution Satellite Imaging of Nitrogen Dioxide from Low Earth Orbit; An Extraterrestrial Voyage: Can Climate Change Really be the Cause?

Diamond, Max, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Goyne, Chris, EN-Mech/Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Wayland, Kent, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Climate change is one of the largest problems facing humanity today. Many solutions exist at the so-called “ground level”, including regulation of carbon emissions or switching to greener energy production methods. As an aerospace engineer, I seek to look for solutions to problems from above, rather than on the ground. Instead of applying a broad stroke to all companies, imploring them to simply “reduce carbon emission”, it would be more useful if certain high-emission areas could be pinpointed with high accuracy. If this were possible, it would be easier to regulate companies that have the greatest carbon emissions, allowing for the greatest potential reduction in harm caused to our atmosphere. Taking this aerial method of thinking one step further, what if it were possible to help slow climate change by exiting the Earth’s atmosphere altogether? If people lived on other planets, that would certainly lessen the emission burden placed on Earth by its inhabitants. This thesis looks at potential ways in which climate change could be reduced, both through currently applicable means and theoretical futuristic means.
The technical portion of this thesis looks at how CubeSats can model carbon emissions at a higher resolution scale than ever before. A CubeSat is a small satellite composed of multiple ten-cubic centimeter frames. For this project, a 3U (3 frames) satellite was chosen. A spectrograph was placed in 1.5U of the space, allowing for electronics and navigation to occupy the other 1.5U. The spectrograph was designed, in part, by the UVA Astronomy department, and will read carbon emission data over key cities the satellite passes over during its orbit. The purpose of the project is to develop a database so that efforts to reduce carbon emission may be locally targeted to zones as specific as roadways in a city. My role, as a member of the Structures and Integration team, was to determine the vendors for parts such as the chassises, solar panels and optical components, as well as to model their arrangement within the CubeSat. This project was left off at a stage in between the Preliminary Design Review and the Critical Design Review. It is planned for the satellite to be launched some time in early 2021.
The research portion of this thesis looks at the recent efforts made by space companies and agencies to colonize the Moon and Mars. If climate change continues to go unchecked, this planet’s days are numbered. While the atmosphere may keep this planet habitable for our lives, and even our children’s lives, it certainly won’t hold out indefinitely. That would mean our grandchildren would have to pay for the lack of effort we made to slow or halt climate change. I hypothesized that climate change was a large motivator for space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, as well as agencies such as NASA and the ESA (European Space Agency). To address this question, I looked at a history of statements made by these players where they mentioned a desire to colonize other planets. I focused on any link to climate change, but ultimately found that there was little to no mention at all. Instead, these companies and agencies cited a desire for exploration, safeguarding humanity against a detrimental global war, or staking a claim to the abundance of natural resources as reasons for wanting to develop extraterrestrial colonies.
The work done on this thesis was very meaningful. I was able to help the 3U CubeSat team advance the design to a point where only a few minor things need to be done in order to deliver a Critical Design Review. The Solidworks is complete for the entire satellite, as well as the spectrograph, save for the placement of bolts and other fasteners within the system. While the onset of Covid-19 hindered the 3U team’s progress, we were still able to finish out the Spring strong and leave a good foundation for next year’s group to come in and pick up where we left off. The research portion of the thesis was also quite fascinating to work through. It is somewhat disappointing that my hunch at the beginning of my research ended up being wrong, but it was a meaningful experience to follow through and see exactly what has caused the recent desire to establish off-world colonies. Perhaps as climate change worsens over the coming years, people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos will begin to acknowledge that getting off this planet is a viable solution to slowing down the onset of climate change.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
extraterrestrial, colonization, elon musk, spacex, jeff bezos, mars, moon

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering
Technical Advisor: Chris Goyne
STS Advisor: Kent Wayland
Technical Team Members: Isabel Araujo, Genesis Brockett, Alex Brookes, Noah DeMatteo, Sami Khatouri, William McNicholas, Matt Moore, Adelaide Pollard, William Schaefermeier, Huy Tran, Hannah Umansky

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