How the billionaire space race could be a giant leap for pollution | Space


Last week, Virgin Galactic took Richard Branson beyond the edge of space, about 86 miles high, in a new space race with Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, which aims to take a similar journey. Tuesday.

The two very wealthy businessmen hope to significantly increase the number of people in space. “We’re here to make space more accessible to everyone,” Branson said, shortly after his flight. “Welcome to the dawn of a new space age.”

Already people are buying space tickets. Companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Space Adventures want to make space tourism more ubiquitous.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa spent an undisclosed amount of money with SpaceX in 2018 on a possible future private trip around the moon and back. And in June, an anonymous space lover paid $ 28 million to fly on Blue Origin’s New Shepard with Bezos – but then withdrew due to a “planning conflict.”

But this launch of a new private space industry that cultivates tourism and popular use could come at considerable environmental costs, says Eloise Marais, associate professor of physical geography at University College London. Marais studies the impact of fuels and industries on the atmosphere.

When rockets launch into space, they need a huge amount of propellant to exit Earth’s atmosphere. For SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, it’s kerosene, and for NASA, it’s liquid hydrogen in their new space launch system. These fuels emit various substances into the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, water, chlorine and other chemicals.

Rocket carbon emissions are low compared to the aviation industry, she said. But they are increasing by almost 5.6% per year, and Marais has been doing a simulation for a decade, to know when they will compete with the traditional sources that we know.

The rocket motor on Richard Branson’s Unity 22 burns as he heads into space. Photograph: Virgin Galactic / Zuma Wire / Rex / Shutterstock

“For a long-haul plane flight, that’s one to three tonnes of carbon dioxide [per passenger], says Marais. For a rocket launch, that’s 200 to 300 tonnes of carbon dioxide carrying around 4 passengers – nearly two orders of magnitude more, according to Marais. “So it doesn’t need to grow much more to compete with other sources.”

Right now, the number of rocket flights is very low: over the whole of 2020, for example, there were 114 attempted orbital launches around the world, according to NASA. This compares to the more than 100,000 daily flights in the airline industry on average.

But rocket emissions are emitted into the upper atmosphere, which means they stay there for a long time: two to three years. Even water injected into the upper atmosphere – where it can form clouds – can have warming effects, Marais explains. “Even something as harmless as water can have an impact.”

Closer to the ground, all fuels emit enormous amounts of heat, which can add ozone to the troposphere, where it acts as a greenhouse gas and retains heat. In addition to carbon dioxide, fuels like kerosene and methane also produce soot. And in the upper atmosphere, the ozone layer can be destroyed by the combination of elements from the combustion of fuels.

“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 of greatest concern,” wrote Jessica Dallas, senior policy adviser at the New Zealand Space Agency, in an analysis. research on space launch emissions published last year.

Another 2019 report by the Center for Space Policy and Strategy compared the problem of space emissions to that of space debris, which the authors say creates an existential risk for the industry. “Today’s launchers’ emissions present a distinctive echo of the problem of space debris. Rocket engine exhaust fumes emitted into the stratosphere during ascent into orbit negatively impact the global atmosphere, ”they wrote.

“We just don’t know how big the space tourism industry could become,” says Marais.

A new market report estimates that the global suborbital transportation and space tourism market is expected to reach $ 2.58 billion in 2031, growing 17.15% each year for the next decade.

“The primary determinant of market robustness will be targeted efforts to enable space transportation, emerging startups in suborbital transportation, and growing developments of low-cost launch sites,” the report said.

In the past, most space transportation focused on International Space Station supply missions and satellite launch services, but now that focus has shifted to space transportation, planetary explorations , crewed missions, suborbital transport and space tourism.

Several companies, including SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic, have focused on developing platforms such as rocket-propelled suborbital vehicles that will enable the industry to achieve suborbital transport and space tourism.

People pointed out that the money these billionaires invested in space technology could be invested to improve life on our planet, where forest fires, heat waves and other climatic disasters are increasingly common. as the globe warms in the climate crisis.

“Anyone else worried that billionaires are leading their own race for private space as record-breaking heatwaves unleash a ‘fire-breathing cloud dragon’ and cook to death? sea ​​creatures in their shells? “Former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich tweeted Last week.

Marais says there’s always an element of excitement in new developments in space – but it’s always possible to be responsible while doing something exciting. She calls for caution as the space tourism industry grows and says there are currently no international rules regarding the types of fuels used and their impact on the environment. “We currently have no regulations regarding rocket emissions,” she said. “Now is the time to act, as billionaires are still buying their tickets.”

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