Astronomers say their field needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: NPR

As the Space Shuttle missions begin to repair and refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope, it has a relatively large carbon footprint compared to other telescopes.


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As the Space Shuttle missions begin to repair and refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope, it has a relatively large carbon footprint compared to other telescopes.


Astronomers spend their careers looking up at the sky far from Earth, but now some stargazers say their field must contend with the fact that observing the universe is contributing to their planet’s climate emergency.

new Appreciation of greenhouse gas emissions associated with all ground and space telescopes, in the journal natural astronomysays the annual carbon footprint of astronomy research infrastructure is equivalent to about 20 million metric tons from carbon dioxide.

“Just to give you some perspective – 20 million tons of CO2 – this is the annual carbon footprint of countries like Estonia, Croatia or Bulgaria,” Jürgen Knodelsderan astronomer at IRAP, an astrophysics laboratory in France.

He and colleagues at IRAP including Annie Hughes And the Luigi Tibaldo They got the idea for this study while making an estimate of greenhouse gas emissions from their institute.

“The only part missing from our assessment was the trace of the observational data,” says Knodelsdir, whose research relied, for example, on observations made with the Fermi gamma-ray space telescope.

“No study has ever attempted to account for carbon emissions due to the construction and operation of all the telescopes and space missions that astronomers use to make observations,” notes Hughes.

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That’s exactly what this research team set out to do. The data was sometimes difficult to obtain, but they did their best to approximate and count the greenhouse gas emissions associated with nearly 50 space missions and 40 ground-based telescope facilities.

the most prolific Emitters were the largest and most expensive observatories, such as the new James Webb Space Telescope and the Square Kilometer Array, according to the report.

By dividing the total annual emissions by the number of astronomers worldwide, the researchers Figure that each astronomer’s share of occupational emissions is about 36 metric tons per year.

Knödlseder points out that this relates to the amount of emissions generated by driving an average car in France 165,000 km, or more than 100,000 miles.

And that’s just from using telescopes — not including things like scientists traveling to conferences, supercomputing power and office heating. “For our lab, the total is actually about 50 tons of CO2 equivalent per year for an astronomer,” he says.

Hughes believes astronomers need to lead by example when it comes to working to mitigate climate change. She says, “If we as scientists don’t react to reports and warnings from our colleagues, it’s a bit like your father telling you you shouldn’t smoke, while he himself smokes a cigarette. Why take his word so seriously?”

The researchers are urging space agencies and astronomical research funders to commit to requiring an environmental assessment of every observing facility they support, and to make it public.

What’s more, they say, until the research becomes more sustainable, through measures such as renewables, one option to reduce emissions is to slow the pace of building new, larger and more complex telescopes.

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“Some of our colleagues were a bit shocked by this idea,” Tibaldo says. “What we really believe is that these options should be on the table. The emergency we are facing is very large and we clearly play a role in it through our work.”

Astronomers hope that other scientific fields will be inspired to take a similar global inventory of greenhouse gas emissions from their research infrastructure. “To my knowledge, this is the first time that this type of study has been done in any research field,” Knodelsder says.

This study is important because it draws attention to astronomy’s contribution to climate change, says Travis Rector،, an astrophysicist at the University of Alaska Anchorage and one of the group’s organizers astronomers for planet earth.

“I think the overall picture is clear that we have significant emissions associated not only with our facility operations, but also with construction,” says Rector. “And that’s something we’ve been aware of for some time. There are efforts to try and reduce emissions associated with these.”

Already, some observatories are using solar energy or are looking at greener energy options. A spokesperson for the National Science Foundation, a major funder of astronomy research, told NPR “We have explored and implemented alternatives to clean energy, such as installing solar panels at our site. North and South Gemini And we built the possibilities for future solar upgrades in buildings.”

The astronomers also discussed the climate impact of traveling to in-person professional conferences. During the pandemic, Rector notes, virtual conferences have attracted more participants than past events, indicating that there were previously unacknowledged barriers to participation.

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“This has been an opportunity for us as a profession to think critically about how we do our job,” says Rector. “Are there ways we can do to reduce our carbon footprint and make it more scientifically productive?”

Although astronomy is a relatively young profession and may have less climate impact than some other human activities, he says, “that doesn’t give us the right to say, well, that’s not our problem. We realize that we are — that we need to be.” Part of the solution, too.”

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