Photo credit  |  Taken at COP26

Tim Peake Q&A

News  |  22 December, 2021  |  Reading time: 28 minutes
Is climate change happening on other planets? How did astronaut Tim Peake’s mission to the International Space Station change his perspective on the fragility of Earth’s atmosphere? How can we ‘see’ changes in the temperature of oceans from space? What difference we each make to climate change?

Discover the answers to all these brilliant questions and more, from European Space Agency and UK astronaut Tim Peake and a panel of Space4Climate’s Earth observation experts. They were quizzed by young people at the Space4Climate stand at COP26 in November, 2021, by pupils from around the UK and by Green Zone visitors who wrote their questions on our blackboard.

The live session was hosted by Space4Climate Chair Beth Greenaway, who is Head of Earth Observation and Climate at the UK Space Agency.

The questions and answers below are drawn from our panel’s responses on the day and also include questions we did not have time for on the day, with answers from our Space4Climate experts. We have grouped similar questions together.

The host was Beth Greenaway, Chair of Space4Climate and the UK Space Agency Head of Earth Observation and Climate.

The expert line-up at COP26 featured:

  • Tim Peake | European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut
  • Donna Lyndsay | Space4Climate Vice Chair and Head of Innovation at Ordnance Survey
  • Prof Fred Worrall | University of Durham, leading peatland scientist.
  • Sam Fleming | Co-founder and Head of Operations at Earth Blox
  • Prof Heiko Balzter | Director of the Centre for Landscape and Climate Research at the University of Leicester, National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO)

Questions answered at COP26:

Q1. Tim, you spent over 6 months in space, while you were there did you see any obvious signs of climate change on Earth?

Tim Peake: Yes, we did. When you look down on the planet you see signs of both the causes and the effects of climate change. When you go over South America you can see vast areas of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest and we know that that’s contributing to climate change effects. When you go over the Himalayas, which are stunning and beautiful, you look further south and you can see the levels of smog that are building and all that pollution is contributing to climate change.

In 2016, when I was on board the International Space Station, there were large wildfires in Alberta, Fort McMurray (in Canada) and we could see the smoke from those fires covering the entire continent of North America. As an astronaut seeing Earth’s atmosphere from space you realise how thin and delicate it is, just 16km thick. If Earth was a football our atmosphere would be just a sheet of A4 paper and that fire smoke’s got nowhere to go so it spreads out over the whole continent. It’s very easy here on Earth to look up at the sky on sunny day and think ‘That lovely blue sky just goes on forever…’ but it doesn’t. The atmosphere is very, very thin, that’s why we have to look after it extremely carefully – there’s not much of it wrapped around planet Earth.

We see other effects of climate change from space as well: we see glacial retreat over long periods of time, we see algae blooming in the oceans and we know it is growing there because our oceans are warming up and that’s an effect of climate change. We also see large ice flows in the South Atlantic – much larger than we’ve witnessed in previous years – and big chunks of ice are being carved off. So, yes, we do see both causes and effects of climate change from space – and that’s just with the human eye, we satellites can see even more.

Q2. Why is the planet burning? What is climate change?

Tim Peake: The Earth gets its energy from the Sun and some of that heat is trapped inside our atmosphere by greenhouse gases, the rest is reflected back to space. But human activities, especially burning fossil fuels such as oil and coal,  are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide (which is one the most harmful greenhouse gases) in our atmosphere so our atmosphere is trapping more and more heat, a bit like a thick duvet on a bed.

Q3. Why is space the best place to monitor climate change and what can space tell us about the climate emergency? (asked by Ellie, Hyndland Secondary School, Glasgow.)

Tim Peake: Space is an incredible place to monitor climate change from, using satellite instruments to be very specific about what we want to focus on. That could be ocean salinity, biomass data, methane or nitrous oxide emissions. Space enables us to have an overarching view, it’s just like having a finger on the pulse of the planet. Monitoring from above is much easier than on land or sea, we can get instantaneous results and data  from space and that enables us to make informed decisions about climate action. It’s really important that we make informed decisions, we can’t afford to guess and we can’t afford to get it wrong.

Prof Heiko Balzter: We are living in the golden age of space, we have never had so many space data sets as today.  From space we can observe the whole planet consistently. We can measure the chemistry of the atmosphere and the temperature of the planet. All of this contributes to our knowledge of climate change and to where we are today, at COP26. We know a lot about how the climate functions and how the planet functions – that would not be the same without space data. We need to understand how life on Earth, the land, oceans, atmosphere and the climate are all connected. From space we can discover how fast the climate is changing and why, we can identify the greatest impacts early and hopefully see that our actions are making a difference, for example to forest recovery and emissions.

Q4. How do you monitor temperature change from space and the temperature in space?

Tim Peake: All of us here are looking in the visible spectrum, I can see what you look like but I can’t see your temperature – my eyes can’t give me that information. But if I look in a slightly different part of the electromagnetic spectrum using an infrared camera it could tell me exactly what your temperature is because of the amount of infrared energy you’re emitting. So by taking infrared cameras into space we can see the exact temperature of various parts of the planet. That’s one example of how we can take a measurement from space and get instant results.

Prof Heiko Balzter: Land surface temperature can be monitored from space with thermal remote sensing – taking the temperature at specific wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum – and we can turn that into direct estimates of the temperature in degrees – either Kelvin or Celsius – and also look at the sea surface temperature at the same time. Operating a consistent set of satellite instruments over time allows us to see the change in temperature over years and decades. This has been absolutely crucial in understanding the impact climate change has made on the oceans because sea surface temperature is part of what drives the ocean circulation around the planet. The UK is heavily influenced by the Gulf Stream, a warm ocean current that contributes to the relatively mild climate we have here. In the UK we have world-leading scientists who have been involved in measuring sea surface temperature and land surface temperature since the beginning of instrumentation in space.

Space4Climate: The detectors in instruments on satellites can measure many different things. For example – to measure the radiation from the sun we have a detector that uses one frequency but to measure methane we use another. We also use other techniques – such as lasers or navigation signals to measure other things. The temperature of space is measured in the microwave part of the electromagnetic spectrum we talked about earlier. ESA  and NASA’s space missions have measured this temperature to be 2.726Kelvin on average which is jolly cold!

Q5. In your opinion, what is the most beneficial impact space technologies have had on our climate?
(Asked by The Climate Emergency Newsroom – 80 sixth year pupils from South Lanarkshire’s secondary schools)
What do you think has had the most significant impact on climate change in the 20th century when thinking about the development of technology? (Asked by Tom, 10)

Tim Peake: The view of Earth from space has a profound effect on you, without a doubt. But in terms of the most influential piece of technology it is data, data, data – I can’t say that enough because we need to make informed decisions and we need to make the right decisions. We haven’t got the time and we haven’t got the money – the money is finite – to get it wrong. So in order to get it right and to do it right now, we need that data so we make informed decisions and we do the right thing, right now.

Sam Fleming: Through my work at Earth Blox we help people to make use of this amazing data that we’re getting from space and so, in my opinion, the best technology is the evolution of computing. We use cloud computing to process all of this data that is collected for the whole planet every single day. Without that we would never be able to get the insights intelligence we need to help fight climate change.

Prof Fred Worrall: I work on UK peatlands and the advantage to me is space and time. To monitor peatlands you imagine that I would have to send lots of people, on a regular basis, wandering over our vast peatlands. But by using satellites, we can do that from space. From space, I can see all of the UK peatlands every day – and every day for the last 20 years. I can also ‘see’ the hidden properties of our peatlands – their temperature in the day and at night, and their water content. A whole range of properties that are really important to the peatlands’ environment.

Donna Lyndsay: To me, one of the most important developments was a photo taken of the Earth in 1972, which is known as The Blue Marble. It drove the whole environmental movement because everybody suddenly realised how vulnerable we are in space and how we need to look after our planet. To me that is one of the biggest driving forces that has gone forward from that technological advancement.

Prof Heiko Balzter: Space technology has made a really significant impact on our understanding of the climate system because we largely rely on complex computer models of how the climate works and all these models have been developed over many decades with the help of space data. We must not forget that much of our understanding of the climate today comes from that combination of computer models with observations from space.

Q6. How can we unite to recover cleaner and greener?
(Asked by Vikell Edwards-Douglas, St Kitts’ National Youth Parliament Association representative to the 16th Conference of Youth (COY16), part of COP26)

Donna Lyndsay: What’s really important about COP is that it brings nations together to talk about the problems and the challenges we face, forming international agreements to take the same climate actions. Once the targets and the metrics that will be looked at have been agreed by the COP negotiators, that’s where space comes in.  From space we can objectively measure the same area of Earth over and over again, and observe different areas of the spectrum, and then hold people to account. So when people say we are going to reforest this area, or we’re going to re-wet this peatland, or create this urban environment that is clean and green, we can measure that and hold them to account.

Through space we can support nature-based solutions, nature restoration, rewilding and support the needs for green finance through transparent and objective measurements.

It is also important to use space technology to support new green industries and to create the data and insights necessary to inform action by anyone and everyone. But people all around the world still need to be engaged to ensure the process delivers the new green-based policies and economy. So citizen engagement, particularly youth engagement, is key.

Sam Fleming: It’s one thing to get all this amazing data from space but at Earth Blox we are about empowering everybody to make use of it so that all together we can help fight climate change and that is why we have been collaborating with the United Nations. They help people all over the world to understand a lot about everything that is happening in their own countries. We can help them to access the data they need to understand what is the best impact they can have in their country to fight climate change.

Q7. Do you believe that we are getting to the point of sending too much into space?  (Asked by the Climate Emergency Newsroom – 80 sixth year pupils from South Lanarkshire’s secondary schools covering COP26)
How do we gain vital data without polluting space and without adding to climate change?

Tim Peake: These are really good questions. Space is vast but there are parts of our orbit that are very important – such as low Earth orbits and geostationary orbits – and we’re putting an awful lot of satellites into them. We need to be clever and sensible and we need to collaborate, we need to share information and we need to regulate space carefully. Whatever we put into space we need to have a plan for clearing it up so it either de-orbits, burns itself up in the atmosphere or it can take itself out into outer space and away from Earth. And we can use space sustainably for generations to come into the future. Our planet is hugely complex and we need many different types of observations to meet the needs of well-understood climate action but what we don’t want to do is to clutter up space so that we cannot use it in 100 years time and that comes down to regulation and collaboration.

Q8. Why are peatlands such a big deal and why is measuring them from space important?

Prof Fred Worrall: Peatlands are an unsung planetary superhero. They are the largest terrestrial (on land) carbon store on the planet, the Earth surface’s most efficient carbon store. They contain 30% of the world’s soil carbon, twice as much as the world’s forests. They can store over 90,000 time more CO2 each year than the world’s largest carbon capture plant. They are also important for water storage, reducing flooding and are rich in biodiversity if healthy. You’ve heard of campaigns to plant a tree? I suggest we need campaigns to preserve a peatland and to grow a peatland as well!

Donna Lyndsay: Peatlands are really important but in many places, they are degrading. Images from satellites help us identify areas that urgently need restoration and track the progress, supporting nature-based solutions to climate change. From space we can remotely measure large areas and see the vegetation health, how wet they are, how cool they are and how they are growing. This is important to help restoration but also to provide evidence to those who fund the restoration.

Through Space4Climate, we at Ordnance Survey work with scientists like Fred to maximise data from satellites by putting it into the hands of people managing peatlands. By using Earth observation (EO) data the team has developed a new way of helping land managers to protect, regenerate and enhance peatlands. You can watch a video about Space4Climate’s peatlands monitoring observatory.

Q9. Is climate change happening to other planets? 

Prof Heiko Balzter: It’s a very good question. It’s important to separate human-driven climate change from the natural variability of the climate – and we are the only planets with humans.  Human actions have changed our climate, and continue to do so, over an extremely short time scale but Earth also has long-term climate changes that it goes through. Think about the last ice ages, for example, those were influenced not by people but by wobbles in the Earth’s orbit, because the Earth’s orbit is not regular – sometimes it is a bit further away from the sun, sometimes a bit closer. Those natural cycles can also happen on other planets but what doesn’t happen on other planets is the human modified climate changes that we see on Earth.

Q10. Why does going to space help us with climate change?
Will science and innovation save our planet? (Asked by Bryony)

Tim Peake: Space gives us the ability to look down on Earth not just visually but in so many different spectrums to get climate data. We can then feed that information to scientists and into models and then we can take the decisions we need, such as where to invest money to make things right or finding out about peatlands. We’ve all learnt something this afternoon and it’s important that we are continuing to learn and continuing to work out exactly what is going to have the best effect in the shortest amount of time. And space is an enabler for that.

Q11. What is your favourite thing to eat in space?  (Asked by Zara, aged 4)

Tim Peake: On Sunday mornings on the International Space Station I treated myself to maple muffin pancakes and there weren’t many up there so each crew member had one a week, they were by far the best thing to eat!

Q12. What is it like in space? (Asked by Lily May)
How was it, was it cold? (Asked by Ava)

Tim Peake: On the International Space Station it is just like the temperature in this room and this pressure, and about this humidity. The only difference is we’ve got about 10 times the CO2. When you go on a spacewalk you can go from 200 degrees Celsius in the sunshine to -200 in the shade!

Q13. Are most astronauts environmentalists ?  (Asked by Tanya)

Tim Peake: Most astronauts are very conscious of the environment and even if they weren’t before they go into space, by the time they come back down they are, without a shadow of doubt. Most astronauts are also keen scientists and they are keen to push the boundaries of technology and engineering, and that’s exactly what we need to do when we look at the environment.

Q14. What inspired you to be an astronaut? (Asked by William, St Margaret’s School)

Tim Peake: I started out as a pilot and what really inspired me to join the European Astronaut Corps was that I saw an incredible group of individuals from all around the world who were collaborating to do something that was more special and more powerful and more constructive than any one nation could do by itself. I felt that was an incredibly empowering project to get involved in.  Astronauts on the space station are pushing the boundaries of technology and engineering. We are trying to get solar panel efficiencies to the maximum we can, battery technology, water purification systems, carbon dioxide removal systems, growing food in space so we can learn how to grow food on the planet in hostile areas like the Sahara Desert – all these kinds of things. But there are thousands and thousands of people on the ground who are part of this incredible team and there are so many careers you can get involved in within the space sector and be part of that amazing team.

Q15. What inspired the panel experts to become climate scientists?

Prof Fred Worrall: I love being a scientist, I don’t think I could be anything else, I love my job! I love doing experiments, getting answers from them, I love playing with data. But it’s not just me playing in my lab and at field sites, and teaching students – my work is beginning to make a difference and I’m really enjoying that as well.

Donna Lyndsay: I love space, geography and maps and my work is a combination of all of those. I feel very privileged that I’m in a position to support innovation and collaboration across these areas and across different communities and countries. If we can all work together we can solve some of the climate challenges really quickly.

Sam Fleming: When I was young I loved nature, at the same time I really liked space and I’m also a bit of a geek – I love maps – and my job combines all those things. What inspired me was learning about climate change which really worried me. In my job I get to combine all these things that I love and I’m fighting climate change every single day.

Prof Heiko Balzter: What inspired me to become a scientist is that mainly I’m an explorer, I like to find things out and I like to discover new things – that’s what got me into science. Why did I end up working with space data? The planet is beautiful, absolutely amazing and I love seeing new images of it from space every single day. I’m also motivated by making a difference because I do think what we do is important and we need lots more people, especially young people to follow in our footsteps.

Q16. How can young people help to stop climate change – now and in the future?

Tim Peake: It is important to stake small steps to make a difference because everybody taking small steps makes a massive impact globally. Young people take a huge interest in their future and in our climate and education, finding out the right information, and becoming passionate about it is a fantastic starting point. In fact, after this I’m going to go and do a bit more research on peatlands because I think it sounds fascinating and I want to know more!

Space4Climate: Space offers so many different careers to so many people and so does climate. We have climate scientists from Space4Climate here but among our members we also have project managers, media, economists, lawyers – all sorts of different careers help the fight against climate change. Here in the UK we have all those skillsets so find something that inspires you to really get involved and to think positively because we can all make a difference. There is a lot of work happening here in the UK, we’ve got engineers designing and building new satellites – including MicroCarb, TRUTHS and BIOMASS [insert links to S4C website missions stories] – a phenomenal space and climate industry here in the UK. Our scientists do the research, and countless others use the information we collect in space to help find ways to reduce climate change and to cope with the changes. When TRUTHS is launched at the end of the 2020s, that’s when our young audience here will be ready to work with the climate data it sends back to us. Everyone is part of the solution.

Answers to additional questions

Written on our Space4Climate stand blackboard in the Green Zone and asked by pupils from around the UK via the UK Space Agency:

Q17. What does Scotland look like on the ground as you come back down from space?

Space4Climate: The European Space Agency’s Image Library is freely available to all and you can search for great photos taken from space of different countries and regions.

Our stand at COP26 featured a composite image taken from space of Scotland derived from the Earth observation satellite Sentinel-2. It is a cloud-free true colour composite using visible bands red, green and blue in the corresponding red, green and blue (RGB) channels. The result is a natural coloured image that represents the land surface as the human eye would see it. Images taken of Scotland from space by Sentinel-2 during Spring 2021 were used by Space4Climate members Assimila to generate the composite image.

Q18. Has the ocean changed colour due to climate change? Can you see it from satellites? (Asked by Lucia)

Prof Chris Merchant: Yes and yes! Ocean colour is measured from space – when there are no clouds in the way. The colour is made by plants floating in the ocean, which respond to temperature and ocean acidification.

Q19. Can we live on Mars when we’re older?
Are there other planets we can live on? (Asked by Corey, 11)
Is it soon that will be able to go on another planet? (Asked by Kyle)

UK Space Agency: It should be possible to live on Mars when you are young adults. Other planets that could be reached are less hospitable for living on. Scientists are currently learning how to live on the Moon and Mars in analogue training environments on Earth.  Estimates for when people might be able to walk on Mars vary over time; reports state that the company SpaceX says it could be in 2026. This may be ambitious; the United States’ space agency, NASA, has said it could be by the end of the next decade!

Q20. Why are we so obsessed with visiting other planets when we won’t even discuss some of the most environmentally damaging activities on Earth, such as animal agriculture?

UK Space Agency: For many people, it’s simply human nature to explore, however, there’s much we can learn from visiting other planets that will help us understand our own planet better (though we don’t want this to be to the exclusion of discussion around other issues). Exploring Mars and its geophysical processes helps scientists learn more about Earth and shifts in climate that can fundamentally alter planets (serious natural climate change occurred on Mars while life evolved on Earth).  It’s also suggested that Venus, too, was Earth-like once until natural climate change made it uninhabitable. Human and robotic spaceflight does contribute to the circular economy and the space sector helps develop technology and materials that benefit our planet – spin-off technology that otherwise wouldn’t have been developed due to high costs, etc.

Such benefits span many sectors such as health and medicine, transportation, public safety and include environmental and agricultural resources. Even Mars exploration efforts have resulted in spin-off technologies in areas such as making clean power, making drilling greener and making better wind turbines. More generally, European Space Agency research involving hypergravity has helped develop an alloy (titanium aluminide) and its casting process that would save weight in jet turbine blades (leading to the burning of less fuel). Companies are also working on forging new super-alloys that can only be made in the microgravity of space that could, for example, be made into bolts allowing for more efficient wind turbines. This is why there’ll always be support for visiting other worlds, whether it’s simply to explore and satisfy humankind’s curiosity, to learn and understand more about climate change across the solar system, or to mine rare-earth elements.

Q21. Is it true we’ve explored more of our galaxy than the oceans?

UK Space Agency: The National Ocean Service of the United States of America says the oceans cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface but less than 20% has been explored. Less than 10% of the global ocean has been mapped with modern sonar technology. Exploring the deep ocean with underwater vehicles is difficult and costly, with extreme pressures and a lack of visibility. By contrast, though we have only set foot on and partially explored our Moon, we are exploring the surfaces of the Moon and Mars with robotic rovers and have sent spacecraft to fly by, orbit and land on other solar system bodies. The Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, made flybys of Jupiter, Saturn and Titan, and entered interstellar space in 2012 (Voyager 2 joined it in 2018). The Gaia space observatory has produced a precise three-dimensional map of the Milky Way galaxy and the motions of its objects. The Hubble Space Telescope has produced an image called the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (containing about 10,000 galaxies) and has observed the most distant and oldest galaxy discovered so far: GN-z11. So, indeed, it could be argued that we have explored more of our galaxy than our oceans if you include robotic exploration.

Q22. Is Pluto a planet? /  Why is Pluto no longer a planet in the Solar System?

Suzie Imber, Associate Professor of Planetary science at the University of Leicester: The answer is that in order to be a planet, three things tests have to be passed:

  1. The object orbits the Sun
  2. The object is big enough to be in hydrostatic equilibrium (it’s round)
  3. The object has cleared its orbital path of other objects

Pluto is OK on the first two. The third one is a problem though.  Think about the Earth: as it goes around the Sun, it doesn’t crash into other objects in its path.  Same for the other planets.  Asteroids, or comets can come flying by, but they aren’t in the same orbit as the Earth.  Not so for Pluto.

There is another thing to consider also: there are a huge number of objects that would become planets, if Pluto were to be allowed into the club! That’s not an official reason to exclude it, but worth considering.

UK Space Agency: Pluto is no longer classed as a planet as scientists have discovered more than a thousand objects beyond the orbit of Neptune including one called Eris which is larger than Pluto. This caused scientists to question the definition of a planet. If Pluto was to remain a planet, other objects (such as Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter) would similarly be planets. It was decided that it was best if a new definition was adopted. This included the requirement that a celestial body had cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit of small bodies. As Pluto shares its orbit with many other celestial bodies, it is now classed as a dwarf planet, as is Ceres (which, too, was originally classed as a planet – before becoming an asteroid and now a dwarf planet).

Q23. How do you go to the toilet in space? (Asked by Jess, aged 4)

UK Space Agency: Going to the loo in space is not so different from on Earth, but there are some differences. The loo on the International Space Station is screened off in an area about the size of a telephone booth. Inside, there are some foot restraints that astronauts use to keep themselves from floating around. Male astronauts pee into a hose that has a conical-shaped receptacle with a switch on the side. The switch is turned on first to operate a fan. In weightlessness, airflow keeps everything moving in the right direction. Once they have suction going into the hose, it’s simply a matter of maintaining a good aim. Female astronauts use an oval-shaped urine receptacle  For poos, there is a small loo seat secured on top of a solid-waste container. This container has a small circular opening, around which is stretched a rubberised bag with an elasticated opening. Hundreds of tiny perforations in the bag allow air to flow through it, but not solid waste. The same switch on the urine hose activates airflow through the solid-waste container. After pooing, astronauts drop the self-sealing, rubberised bag with its contents into the container and leave a fresh bag in place for the next astronaut. The solid-waste container is changed about every 10 to 15 days.

Q24. Is climate change happening to other planets?

Suzie Imber, Associate Professor of Planetary science at the University of Leicester: It’s important to separate human-driven climate change from the natural variability of the climate. Our actions have changed our climate, and continue to do so, over an extremely short time scale. Earth’s climate has also changed naturally, for example, there have been episodic ice ages going back many tens of thousands of years. This natural variability of the Earth can occur over very long timescales, caused by changes in the Sun’s luminosity (which was weaker in the early Solar System), or cycles in the Earth’s orbital dynamics (the Milankovich cycles). Changes can also be dramatic, for example huge volcanic eruptions or asteroid impacts.

Other planets don’t have the human aspect, but their climates do vary naturally.  The changing Sun has caused conditions on all of the inner planets to change with time.  They all show evidence of past (or current) volcanism, which can dramatically alter the climate, and some have experienced events that have swung the climate dramatically, for example when Mars lost its magnetic field ~4billion years ago, and its atmosphere was stripped away.

Thank you!

We are very grateful to Tim and our experts for their time in taking part and also to all the pupils from around the UK who submitted questions and watched online, to Glasgow Science Centre, the team at Green Zone delivery partner Glasgows and to the staff and pupils of Hyndland Secondary School in Glasgow who joined us on the Space4Climate stand. Thanks also go to the UK Space Agency’s Education Office ESERO and the digital team for facilitating and recording the event.

You can watch a recording of the live event on the UK Space Agency’s YouTube channel.