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How space tourism could undermine climate change efforts

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“There really is no magically clean green fuel that would make space tourism climate-friendly”

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Three billionaire-owned companies, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, have tested commercial space flights in 2021, and Virgin Galactic has said it plans to eventually fly 400 flights a year. Based on this, the researchers developed a future scenario simulating daily suborbital launches from Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin and weekly orbital launches from SpaceX. In this scenario, rocket emissions in three years were twice those measured in a decade of massive upper-air emissions of a very harmful pollutant: soot. An article by Gianna Melillo in Changing America highlights the consequences on a planetary scale.

Space tourism can seem like an intangible, futuristic phase of human recreation, with the most privileged inhabitants of Earth taking off daily. But a new study concludes that the consequences of this boom may be all too real for those of us who are firmly on the ground.

When rockets launch into space and return to Earth’s orbit, they can blast harmful pollutants straight into the upper ozone layer of the stratosphere, trapping heat below and insulating the Earth. One of the main culprits for this phenomenon is soot.

Impact on the entire Earth

“Soot emitted by rockets is 500 times more effective at keeping heat in the atmosphere than soot from any other source,” said lead author Robert Ryan, an atmospheric chemist at University College London. This means that a few rocket launches are enough to equal the soot pollution from several ground vehicles or aircraft.

Using models based on commercial rocket launches and re-entries in 2019, the researchers compiled an inventory of pollutant emissions into the atmosphere and predicted the impact these expeditions would have if they were carried out regularly.

Rocket flying is the only human activity that directly pollutes the upper atmosphere, or stratosphere, according to Ryan. Thus, it could have detrimental effects on this primordial environment and on the Earth as a whole.

Lack of environmental regulations for space tourism

“The higher you place things in the atmosphere, the longer they stay there. Thus, the residence time of soot in the atmosphere increases from the order of weeks when it is in the lower atmosphere, to the order of years when it is in the upper atmosphere,” he continued. “The higher you place soot particles in the atmosphere, the more incoming radiation they absorb. » Increasing radiation interception will lead to more warming.

Despite relatively small losses of ozone at the current pace of space exploration, as the industry grows and more countries develop space weapons programs, the threat of this pollutant will increase.

Unlike the rest of the transportation industry, there are no national or global regulations for environmental monitoring of a rocket flight.

Photo SpaceX, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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