climate change

As space tourism increases, there is an urgent need to address the climate impact

Researchers from University College London, UCL, the University of Cambridge, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) used a 3D model to examine the effects of rocket launches and re-entry in 2019 as well as the effects of projected space tourism scenarios based on the recent billionaire space race. Their findings were published in the journal Earth’s Future.

The researchers discovered that the black carbon (soot) particles released by rockets are over 500 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than all other sources of soot combined (surface and aviation), leading to an amplified climate effect.

Even while the study found that there is currently just a minor loss of total ozone from rockets, present growth patterns in the space tourism industry point to the possibility of future ozone depletion in the Arctic in the spring. This is due to the fact that stratospheric ozone is particularly vulnerable to contaminants from solid-fuel rockets, re-entry heating from spacecraft that are returning, and debris.

Rocket launches are frequently linked to greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions from the aircraft sector, which we show in our work is incorrect, according to study co-author Dr. Eloise Marais (UCL Geography).

“Soot particles from rocket launches have a much larger climate effect than aircraft and other Earth-bound sources, so there doesn’t need to be as many rocket launches as international flights to have a similar impact. What we really need now is a discussion amongst experts on the best strategy for regulating this rapidly growing industry.”

The researchers gathered data on the chemicals from all 103 rocket launches worldwide in 2019 as well as information on reusable rocket and space debris re-entry to calculate the results. 

Additionally, they developed a hypothetical future for a powerful space tourism business using the recent achievements of space tourism entrepreneurs Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX as well as Virgin Galactic’s anticipated yearly offerings of at least daily launches.

These data were then incorporated into a 3D atmospheric chemistry model to explore the impact on climate and the ozone layer.

The scientists demonstrated that emissions from kerosene-fueled rockets account for the majority of the 3.9 mW m-2 warming due to soot from a decade of modern rockets. Due to the usage of kerosene by SpaceX and hybrid synthetic rubber fuels by Virgin Galactic, this more than doubles (7.9 mW m-2) after just three years of additional emissions from space tourism launches.

The soot particles have a significantly higher impact on climate when they are directly injected into the upper atmosphere than they do from conventional soot sources, with the particles being 500 times more efficient at holding heat, according to the researchers.

The team discovered that the impact on the stratospheric ozone layer under a scenario of daily or weekly space tourism rocket launches threatens to undo the recovery seen after the successful adoption of the Montreal Protocol.

One of the most effective worldwide environmental policy initiatives was the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which outlawed all compounds that weaken the ozone layer.

“The top stratosphere is the only region of the atmosphere showing robust ozone recovery post-Montreal Protocol, and that is precisely where the impact of rocket emissions will hit hardest,” said study co-author Dr. Robert Ryan. 

We had not expected the magnitude of the ozone changes that are jeopardizing the regrowth of the ozone layer. Regarding the types and byproducts of new fuels like liquid methane and bio-derived fuels, as well as the scale of the sector in the future, we still have a lot to learn about how emissions from rocket launches and re-entry influence the environment.

“This study allows us to enter the new era of space tourism with our eyes wide open to the

potential impacts. The conversation about regulating the environmental impact of the space launch industry needs to start now so we can minimize harm to the stratospheric ozone layer and climate.”

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