Space

MIT Scientists Suggest Wild Plan to Ease Climate Change: Space Bubbles

Concerned that efforts to staunch the flow of excess greenhouse gases bleeding into our atmosphere won’t be enough to save us from a worsening crisis, MIT engineers have returned to a decades old vision to help ease the effects of climate change.

To buy time for weaning ourselves off our fossil fuel addiction, we could simply raise a parasol made of high-tech bubbles over the planet to create a bit of shade.

First proposed in the late 1980s, the suggestion of using a vast space-umbrella to block a tiny proportion of solar radiation isn’t quite as far-fetched as it sounds. And to be fair, it’s also a far less risky plan than other large scale geo-engineering projects intent on reflecting light from the surface back into space.  

Yet even if the fundamental concept of cooling Earth with some kind of orbiting shield is feasible, the materials required wouldn’t exactly be off-the-shelf, requiring properties that made them robust, light-weight, and optically suitable.

Initial suggestions centered on a 2,000-kilometer (1,200 mile) wide glass sandwich blown from materials mined from lunar rock. Placed in a precise balance between the Sun’s and Earth’s gravity and the impact of solar rays and particles, it would reflect an amount of light calculated to mitigate the steady rise in temperature.

Since then, a variety of alternatives have been considered, from hydrogen-filled aluminum balloons to an artificial ring of particles that would turn Earth into a miniature Saturn.

All have their pros, but overwhelming cons relegate most to the ‘nice idea, shame about the science’ bin.

Still, desperate times call for desperate measures. Confident there’s still merit to the fundamental benefits of a solar shield, MIT scientists are calling for a feasibility study on deploying a raft of foamy bubbles the size of Brazil.

Once you get past thoughts of launching giant cans of shaving cream out into the interplanetary vacuum, it doesn’t sound all that ludicrous.

Made from a homogenous substance like molten silicon, the subtle variations in thickness in the bubble film could reflect a variety of wavelengths of solar radiation, increasing its efficiency. And unlike the complex origami required to fold and un-fold large reflective fabrics for delivery, a sheet of bubbles could be blown in place, optimizing costs.

Best of all, should something unforeseen occur, it’s far more effective to pop a bunch of bubbles than it is to scoop up clouds of dust, recall crowds of tiny umbrellas, or shatter a city-sized pane of glass.

In theory such a shield would have a mass density of around 1.5 grams per square meter, putting it on the same level as speculative technology based on swarms of orbiting space-umbrellas.

Like many similar suggestions, the technology would need to be held in place by the tug-of-war between Earth and the Sun to avoid the need for heavy guidance systems.

Ideally, engineers would hope for the entire system to be capable of reducing the amount of sunlight that would otherwise bake our planet by 1.8 percent – a figure arrived at by previous studies.

Whether they can find a material capable of ticking all the right boxes, and work out a suitable way to launch it into position and then start blowing, depends on getting funding for additional research. Of course, none of this has been published in a peer-reviewed journal as yet – the researchers are simply putting the idea out there in the hopes that future work can be conducted to build upon it. So for now it’s mostly intriguing speculation.

Preliminary experiments have shown it’s possible to inflate thin-film bubbles at a pressure of around three-thousandths of an atmosphere, maintained at a temperature of -50 degrees Celsius (-58 Fahrenheit). But a lot more work needs to be done before we can even consider putting the plan into action.

“We believe that advancing feasibility studies of a solar shield to the next level could help us make more informed decisions in the years to come should geoengineering approaches become urgent,” says Carlo Ratti, a professor of urban technologies at MIT Senseable City Lab.

None of this would mean easing off on efforts to strangle carbon emissions of course. Previous MIT research also implies we need to be extremely cautious when it comes to any kind of solar shading, with the changing global weather patterns a distinct possibility.

But in light of evidence that disastrous temperatures could be reached within as little as a decade or two, it’s clear all options need to be left on the table for consideration.

Just don’t let these big flashy projects distract us from the real solution – stopping emissions as quickly as humanly possible

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