THE BLOG
12/29/2013 07:39 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2014

5 Ways Outer Space Taught Us About Earth in 2013

Another year of the Internet has come to a close, which can only mean one thing: time for more lists! The science magazines will undoubtedly create exciting top 10's of the most awesome things to happen in space in 2013. But some of the stories that most need telling are not the big-ticket tales of human spaceflight and new exoplanet discoveries. For most people, it's the less flashy things that can mean the most in the lives of people right down here on Earth. And these benefits are not limited to spinoffs like microelectronics and high-tech medical technologies that people from rich countries enjoy; from human rights to food security, space assets provide incredibly meaningful humanitarian contributions to the planet. Here are five of the many ways in which space touched us down here on Earth in 2013:

1. Space assets helped human rights workers uncover war crimes in the Central African Republic

Since the March 2013 coup and ousting of President François Bozizé by the rebel Seleka Coalition, more than a thousand people have been killed, over 100,000 displaced, and the situation is growing worse by the day with reports of rape, torture, executions, and other atrocities. In the CAR, space-based intelligence gathering, along with the stories and research from people on the ground, lead to the United Nations' decision in November to unanimously authorize the deployment of peacekeeping troops into the region.

Satellite imagery becomes particularly useful in conflict zones where it is too dangerous to send in reporters and aid workers, and when affected villages are too remote to reach by vehicle. In response, Human Rights Watch has used satellite imagery to collect detailed evidence of tell-tale signs of humans rights abuses. For example, viewing arson attacks on multiple civilian villages (considered a war crime by international humanitarian law) in the CAR, such as the gold mining village of Camp Bangui, where "black burn" scars indicate around half of the village has been destroyed. In other areas, satellite imagery detailing new tent-like structures indicate mass displacement of people -- another common indicator of abuses.

In addition, the escalating violence between Christians and Muslims has incited the very real fear that genocide is imminent. In other conflicts such as those in the Sudan and in Kosovo, human rights abuse investigators have used satellites to look for mass graves -- a feature commonly correlated with genocide. In fact, a mass grave was discovered by Red Cross workers a few days ago in Bengui, the CAR capital. Let us hope that this is one use satellites will not need to serve.

2) Space assets were used in search and rescue operations in the Philippines

We all saw the harrowing images of Typhoon Haiyan, which left 6,111 people dead, 1,799 missing, and 4.4 million homeless -- a disaster so devastating and disruptive that weeks after the storm, over a thousand bodies still remain unburied.

During the immediate aftermath of the storm, rescue workers used space assets to help to coordinate the search, rescue, and relief efforts. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) deployed satellite phones and broadband satellite terminals for data to many of the regions most affected. This allowed for those conducting humanitarian assistance to coordinate logistics when deploying medical assistance, food, and water to those in need; allowed rescue workers to figure out how to reach victims when roads and landmarks are destroyed, rendering maps useless; and helped people contact their loved ones after being separated. In addition, companies like DigitalGlobe and Astrium have already (at no charge) provided emergency workers with imagery that detail the devastating before and after images. As the country rebuilds, images such as these will be critical in assessing the damage and prioritizing recovery efforts. The United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER) has collected and made available several images, all accessible to the general public.

3) Satellites helped map the density of the world's vegetation

More than 800 million people worldwide suffer from malnutrition and chronic hunger. According to the World Health Organization, one of the key pillars to food security is food availability -- that is, having sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis. In an effort to better understand where this is most challenging, Earth observation satellites provide detailed mapping of agriculture activities, including the distribution and condition of crops.

In November 2103, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) released a set of stunning color images detailing the places on Earth that are green vegetation rich, and the places that were lacking due to stress conditions such as drought. By compiling data gathered over the course of a year, the Suomi NPP satellite allowed us yet another way to visualize the Earth that was both data rich and beautiful. A particularly stunning view: images of the of vast North African dryness, with the green colored banks of the river Nile -- the agricultural lifeblood of the regions through which it flows.

Another valuable mapping contribution came from the European Space Agency's Proba-V satellite, which in July after a month in space captured its own snapshot of Earth's vegetation density. This is only one of the latest in satellites orbiting the Earth that are producing data that when combined with other information such as weather satellites, can be used for drought monitoring and mitigation, and precise early warning forecasting for regions at risk for food insecurity.

4) Space satellites provided climate scientists with information on the record lows of Arctic sea ice

Every year the arctic sea ice melts to its summer minimum. But on September 13, 2013, analysis of satellite data by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) showed sea ice had reached the 6th lowest level in the 35-year history of satellite measurement (1.97 million square miles). Now, this was an increase over the previous year, which was the all-time record low (1.32 million square miles); but it was still consistent with the long-term downward trend, a decline that has accelerated since 2007, and lead to a 40 percent loss of sea ice since 1980.

The loss of sea ice cover is a leading indicator of climate change, and many scientists believe that within decades, the Arctic will be entirely ice-free in the summer months. Why does this matter? Not only do many animals depend on the ice for their homes, but native peoples of the Arctic depend on these animals for food. The ice also reflects sunlight back out into space, which helps prevent the Earth from getting too warm. Less ice means less reflection; less reflection means a warmer planet and -- you guessed it -- even more ice melting. Several space satellites are orbiting our poles and observing these phenomena, and will continue to report back down on Earth in 2104. Sadly, the predictions indicate the results will not be good.

5) O3B launched a microsatellite constellation to provide affordable broadband internet to the developing world

The ability to communicate vital information, provide education in an increasingly paperless world, and provide a platform for free speech is becoming more and more dependent on the ability to access the Internet. A 2009 World Bank study estimated that a 10 percent increase in broadband penetration in low and middle income countries yielded an additional 1.38 percent in GDP growth. And many -- including the United Nations -- have declared universal access to the internet to be a human right.

In developed countries, ground-based fiber has become the dominant technology for delivering broadband internet. But in developing nations, laying ground-based infrastructure can be cost-prohibitive due to geography, rural and remote populations, and low purchasing power of users. And before recently, satellite internet access was also costly, as countries would have to rely on telecommunications giants and their often steep fees to provide high-speed services to their citizens.

The last decade has seen the popularization of small, cost-effective satellites "microsatellites" that can be combined into networks or "constellations," which use their collective capability to deliver high-speed data, which can be an excellent lower-cost solution for emerging markets.

One such company that is revolution this space is O3b Networks, a start-up founded in 2007. Their goal: provide broadband connectivity to the "other 3 billion" people on the planet who do not have internet access. In June 2013, O3b successfully launched its first 4 satellites (of a constellation that will reach 16), and in 2014 will begin to provide its first services. And they've already got users signed up: some of O3b's first customers include governments and companies servicing Papua New Guinea, Somalia, and Peru. The company has plans to continue to extend services across Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific.

Now, I would not be a proper space geek if I didn't at least mention the incredible feats that have been accomplished in 2013 from a high technology and exploration standpoint, such as SpaceX's Dragon Capsule docking to the International Space Station, China landing on the Moon, or my personal favorite, finding water geysers on Europa. However, sometimes it's valuable to look beyond the razzle dazzle, and reflect on how some of the more tangible benefits of investing in space -- especially those that are improving the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable of us. To those who value protecting the child suffering from malnutrition or the refugees fleeing war, it is these stories that will connect our hearts when the money gets tight, our imaginations demand a pause from the wonder, and reality requires from us full on confrontation of the real wounds of humanity that need healing.