JUL 04, 2022 10:00 AM PDT

Space tourism growth could lead to climate change effects greater than the aviation industry

Launch of NASA's SpaceX Demo-2 from Kennedy Space Center in May 2020. (Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Space tourism is becoming a booming industry thanks to private companies like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX. However, a new study published in the journal Earth’s Future sheds new light on how black carbon (soot) particles emitted by rocket engines could result in an enhanced climate effect. The collaborative research effort was carried out by researchers from the University of College London (UCL), University of Cambridge, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The study focused on the stratospheric ozone layer, which is responsible for protecting us from the harmful effects of solar radiation. The researchers noted that rockets, unlike other anthropogenic (human-made) pollution sources, emit gaseous and solid chemicals directly into the upper atmosphere. The data used in the study involved 103 rocket launches in 2019 from China (34 launches), Russia and Kazakhstan (22), USA (21), European Space Agency (9), New Zealand (6), India (6), and Japan (2), along with the types of fuel (kerosene, hypergolic, and liquid and solid hydrogen) and the chemicals of the emissions (nitrogen oxides, water, black carbon, hydrogen chloride, chlorine, and aluminum oxide). This data was used to create a 3D atmospheric chemistry model to simulate both the impact on both the climate and ozone layer.

"Rocket launches are routinely compared to greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions from the aircraft industry, which we demonstrate in our work is erroneous,” says 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 study concluded that black carbon particles emitted by rocket engines into the upper atmosphere are almost 500 times more efficient at increasing the effects of climate change (i.e., holding heat in the atmosphere) than all other black carbon sources.

"There is still a lot we need to find out about the influence of rocket launch and re-entry emissions on the atmosphere -- in particular, the future size of the industry and the types and by-products of new fuels like liquid methane and bio-derived fuels,” says study co-author Dr Robert Ryan. "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."

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

Sources: Earth’s Future

MS in Geological Sciences
Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of “Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey”.
You May Also Like
JUL 02, 2022
Space & Astronomy
Martian meteorite questions longstanding theory of planetary formation
JUL 02, 2022
Martian meteorite questions longstanding theory of planetary formation
Approximately 4.6 billion years ago, our solar system formed from a cloud of gas and dust called a solar nebula that swi ...
JUL 08, 2022
Plants & Animals
Oilseed Plant Camelina Has Potential as an Aviation Biofuel
JUL 08, 2022
Oilseed Plant Camelina Has Potential as an Aviation Biofuel
Camelina, an oilseed currently grown in what is now Ukraine, is a grain product that has been cultivated for thousands o ...
JUL 13, 2022
Space & Astronomy
Wicked Fast Star Discovered Orbiting Black Hole
JUL 13, 2022
Wicked Fast Star Discovered Orbiting Black Hole
Researchers at the University of Cologne and Masaryk University in Brno (Czech Republic) have clocked a star, labeled S4 ...
JUL 18, 2022
Plants & Animals
Early Domesticated Dogs Grew in Size to Defend Herds
JUL 18, 2022
Early Domesticated Dogs Grew in Size to Defend Herds
As one of the earliest domesticated animals, dogs evolved from wolves into what we now know as extremely diverse domesti ...
AUG 06, 2022
Space & Astronomy
Ancient Mars volcanism created rare mineral
AUG 06, 2022
Ancient Mars volcanism created rare mineral
In a collaborative study slated to be published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters this September, planetary scienti ...
AUG 03, 2022
Cardiology
Cardiovascular diseases could see sharp increase in US by 2060
AUG 03, 2022
Cardiovascular diseases could see sharp increase in US by 2060
In a recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, a collaborative research team from the ...
Loading Comments...