A radical new form of solar geoengineering.

By  Chris Young

A team of MIT researchers is investigating a radical method for countering the effects of climate change, a press statement reveals.

They propose to use a fleet of “space bubbles” to reflect sunlight away from Earth.

As we all know, such crazy ideas wouldn’t even be on the table if humans had drastically curbed their use of fossil fuels years ago — but here we are.

While some scientists warn that geoengineering is a dangerous distraction from the true work needed to cut emissions, others say we need to assess all options. That’s where the MIT team’s space bubbles come in. 

‘Space bubbles’ are a safer form of solar geoengineering

The MIT team’s method is a novel form of solar geoengineering, which is designed to reflect sunlight away from Earth so as to cool our planet and prevent the worst effects of climate change. The most widely studied solar geoengineering technique involves injecting reflective aerosol particles into the upper atmosphere. However, the potential negative impact of such a method is not yet fully understood, meaning it is far from being seen as a viable option.

The MIT scientists’ approach would be a little different. Instead of injecting particles into Earth’s atmosphere, their approach would reflect the sun’s heat from space, meaning no potentially harmful particles would have to be injected into our atmosphere.

The researchers are studying the possibility of positioning a shield made of “space bubbles” at Lagrangian Point 1, which is a relatively stable orbital point in space, where the gravitational pull of Earth and the sun evens out. The James Webb Space Telescope, for example, is positioned in Lagrangian Point 2.

MIT proposes using a 'space bubble' shield the size of Brazil to cool the Earth

MIT’s ‘space bubble’ solution could be deployed from space. Source: MIT/Senseable

The biggest hurdle for this method is without a doubt in the logistics. The MIT scientists believe that the bubble shield would have to be roughly the size of Brazil. However, they believe the bubbles could be manufactured in space, reducing any launch costs. They are currently experimenting in the laboratory with “space bubbles” made out of silicon.

In a press release, they explained how in “preliminary experiments, we succeeded at inflating a thin-film bubble at a pressure of 0.0028 atm, and maintaining it at around -50°C (to approximate space conditions of zero pressure and near-zero temperature).”

Could solar geoengineering serve as a life raft for humanity?

Crucially, the MIT researchers also wrote that their solar geoengineering solution would be “fully reversible”, presumably meaning the bubbles could quickly be popped if we find they are having an unwelcome effect on our planet.

This is very important, as we are yet to fully grasp the full complexity of climate change itself, let alone that of geoengineering methods.

MIT proposes using a 'space bubble' shield the size of Brazil to cool the Earth

In an interview with Discover Magazine, Linda Schneider, an international climate policy expert said “even our understanding of the climate change that we’re causing unintentionally right now still has limitations, especially when it comes to impacts further into the future. Our understanding of what would happen if we were to intentionally manipulate the climate at a global scale is even less.” 

More research is, of course, needed, despite the fact that “space bubbles” are, on paper, a safer form of solar geoengineering. However, if the worst effects of climate change do become a reality, as they likely will as things stand, this proposal could serve as a vital life raft for humanity.