Story at a glance:
- A future in which people can tour space or travel to the moon and back could have environmental costs.
- Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket needs kerosene, a combustible hydrocarbon liquid derived from petroleum, which burns the ozone.
- The marketplace for space tourism is estimated to reach $2.58 billion in 2031.
There is a race among billionaires to successfully travel into space with Richard Branson recently leading, having successfully gone out to the edge of space, followed by Jeff Bezos on Tuesday morning.
However, this new space race between Branson, Bezos and Elon Musk has unintended consequences in the form of pollution, The Guardian reported.
The three businessmen want to “make space more accessible to all,” as Branson said. A future where people can tour space or travel to the moon and back could have environmental costs, associate professor of physical geography at University College London Eloise Marais told The Guardian, saying space rockets require a huge amount of propellants to make it out of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Musk’s SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket needs kerosene, a combustible hydrocarbon liquid derived from petroleum, and NASA uses liquid hydrogen in their new Space Launch System, The Guardian reported.
Both fuels emit substances in the atmosphere like carbon dioxide, water, chlorine and other chemicals.
While carbon emissions from rockets are currently much smaller than aircrafts, rocket emissions increase nearly 5.6 percent a year, Marais said.
A decadelong simulation to find out at what point rocket fuel will compete with traditional sources of carbon emissions determined that, “For one long-haul plane flight it’s one to three tons of carbon dioxide [per passenger],” says Marais.
Between 200 and 300 tonnes of carbon dioxide carrying four passengers is close to two orders of magnitude more, she continued. “So it doesn’t need to grow that much more to compete with other sources.”
There have only been 114 attempts of orbital launches in the world in 2020, and the airline industry operates more than 100,000 flights on a daily basis, according to NASA.
Unlike airplanes, though, rocket emissions stay in the upper atmosphere between two and three years. Even water emitted into the atmosphere has an effect on the clouds.
The fuel emission closer to the ground adds ozone to the troposphere, like a greenhouse gas that retains its heat.
Fuels like kerosene and methane also produce soot, and chemicals in rocket fuels can damage the protective ozone layer.
“While there are a number of environmental impacts resulting from the launch of space vehicles, the depletion of stratospheric ozone is the most studied and most immediately concerning,” Jessica Dallas, a senior policy adviser at the New Zealand Space Agency, wrote.
The Center for Space Policy and Strategy said in a report from 2019 that space debris creates an existential risk to the industry.
“Today, launch vehicle emissions present a distinctive echo of the space debris problem. Rocket engine exhaust emitted into the stratosphere during ascent to orbit adversely impacts the global atmosphere,” researchers wrote.
“We just don’t know how large the space tourism industry could become,” Marais said.
The marketplace for space tourism is estimated to potentially be $2.58 billion in 2031, and it is growing at a rate of 17.15 percent each year of the next decade, the Guardian reported.
“The major driving factor for the market's robustness will be focused efforts to enable space transportation, emerging start-ups in sub-orbital transportation, and increasing developments in low-cost launching sites,” the report says.
In the past, space transportation was primarily focused on cargo supply missions to the International Space Station and satellite launch services. However, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, backed by Musk, Bezos and Branson, respectively, have enabled an industry of suborbital travel and space tourism.
During a time when billionaires invest in space tourism, the Earth is dealing with wildfires, heat waves and other climate disasters becoming more frequent as the globe warms up in the climate crisis.
“Is anyone else alarmed that billionaires are having their own private space race while record-breaking heat waves are sparking a ‘fire-breathing dragon of clouds’ and cooking sea creatures to death in their shells?” the former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich tweeted last week.
“We have no regulations currently around rocket emissions,” Marais said. “The time to act is now – while the billionaires are still buying their tickets.”
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