KTU scientists: strengthen scientific collaboration in outer space

Important | 2024-04-03

Rapid technological progress allows us to launch more and better satellites into space every year. Most of them are for commercial telecommunications or navigation, many are military. But satellites are also greatly improving scientific research. Scientific satellites allow us to look deep into space, measure cosmic radiation, observe supernovae, or discover galaxies far away. We can also use them to look back down to Earth, for example, to monitor changes in the global environment, from tropical rainforests to Arctic ice sheets.

The data collected by scientific satellites are used for many different purposes, from analyzing the impacts of global warming to profiling asteroids that could, in the future, come dangerously close to Earth. The free sharing of such data is essential for maximizing the positive social impacts of scientific research. Data-sharing also allows countries and universities that do not possess satellites of their own to engage in cutting-edge space and Earth science.

Florian Rabitz, chief researcher at the Civil Society and Sustainability research group.

For many years, organizations such as the European Space Agency or the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have systems in place that allow the open sharing of vast amounts of scientific data collected via satellites. But we are also witnessing an increasing trend towards the privatization of data, as more and more commercial organizations are providing Earth and space observation services, and as confidentiality concerns are increasingly being invoked to stymie data access.

As part of a research project on the politics of outer space, we are investigating patterns of collaboration in the global satellite sector. Our analysis shows that collaboration on scientific satellites across international borders is virtually absent.

Satellite collaboration clusters
Satellite collaboration clusters

The figure on the left shows one large collaborative cluster, primarily consisting of US-based organizations and a few other, mostly European ones. Aside from this cluster, international cooperation is limited: With few exceptions, German organizations partner inside Germany, Canadian organizations inside of Canada, and Japanese organizations inside Japan. And aside from India and especially the space superpower China, the countries of the Global South are not involved in partnerships on scientific satellites at all!

As scientific data becomes increasingly exclusionary, there is thus a need to ensure the appropriate sharing of scientific data, but also to explore options for broader ownership of the technical infrastructure that generates these data. This could happen, for instance, through multinational consortia that include research institutions from developing countries on equal footing. Consortia with pooled ownership of scientific satellites already exist, although they are exceedingly rare. Technology transfer or financial support are additional ways to broaden global access to satellite technology for scientific purposes. A crucial benefit of such measures would be capacity-building: As with many other areas of scientific research, the Earth and space sciences are dominated by elite institutions in a handful of countries in the Global North. Improving the distribution of critical scientific infrastructure is thus essential for improving equity in global scientific research as such.

Florian Rabitz, Inga Popovaitė and Vidas Vilčinskas are researchers in the Research Group Civil Society and Sustainability at Kaunas University of Technology. They are collaborating on the project “the transnationalization of outer space”, funded by the Research Council of Lithuania (grant no. P-MIP-23-234).