Rocket launches are nothing short of amazing. Whether we grew up in the Apollo era, the space shuttle era or the private space era, most of us can easily remember a rocket launch with the roar of its engines, jets of fire and smoke trails. That image is burned into the consciousness of almost everyone on planet Earth who has access to TV or the internet.
But, until recently, few people thought that the strange launches could leave a serious pollution in their wake. As it is known, the space travel industry, with dozens of launches every year, is responsible for the same amount of carbon emissions as the world’s aviation industry. With the rapid growth of the commercial space industry, we see a steady increase in the number of rocket launches every year. Therefore, the scale of the problem will only grow.
The space travel industry is responsible for the same amount of carbon emissions as the global aviation industry.
In May 2022, two scientists from the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, Ioannis Kokkinakis and Dimitris Drikakis, sought to quantify the potential impact in a study that appeared in the Physics of Fluids journal. They aim to measure potential health and climate risks by combining rocket launch data with computer simulations.
The conclusion they reached was that “pollution from rockets should not be underestimated because the frequent future launches of rockets may have a significant impact on the climate,” and may also “damage health of man.”
In the simulations, the scientists used data based on the standard rocket fuel RP-1. And therein lies one of the biggest problems facing the space launch industry. RP-1 (alternatively, Rocket Propellant-1 or Refined Petroleum-1) is a highly refined form of kerosene that has been the standard rocket fuel used for decades. Unfortunately, RP-1 is not and never will be a clean burning fuel. Launching with RP-1 or similar kerosene-based fuel creates tons of CO2, as well as particulate matter in the atmosphere called black carbon, commonly known as soot.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. It’s early days, really, but it’s safe to say that there’s a green revolution starting in the space launch industry. Positive signs are beginning to appear throughout the global space industry and it appears to be gathering steam.
It starts to rethink about the fuels used. Three developing rocket launch companies, two in Europe and one in the US, decided to build their rockets around a very different, but very familiar fuel – propane. Strange as it may seem, what most people think of as camping gas may be a saving grace for the world’s space launch industry.
Propane has qualities that make it a sustainable fuel. First, it burns very cleanly, meaning that black carbon is not left in the atmosphere. Second, its carbon footprint is small compared to the RP-1. A study from the University of Exeter concluded that a “microlauncher” rocket that uses a renewable form of propane – bio-propane – can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 96% compared to other similar sized ones. rocket.
A spaceport currently under construction in Scotland, the Sutherland Spaceport, also stands for environmental sustainability. The developers of the spaceport intend to make it the first carbon-neutral spaceport in the world — both in its construction and in its operation. An illustration of what this means practically is how the developers plan to reuse the peat removed from the construction to repair the peat “scars” in the surrounding landscape, created by the decades of peat harvesting for fuel.
Another hopeful sign from the space industry comes from the European Space Agency (ESA). They recently commissioned a study called “Ultra-Green Launch & Space Transportation Systems.” Although this is a long-term game, as it seeks solutions that can be exploited in the period 2030-2050, the fact that a major space agency is studying the issue is a positive sign of the direction taken by the industry in world space. .
There is positive momentum, too, from the European Space Agency, through their leadership in solving the issue of space debris or space junk. Anyone who has seen the movie Wall-E can imagine what it looks like from space and feel a little collective shame at how man got to this state. It is believed that there are already millions of pieces of space junk in Earth’s orbit. However, one of the most comforting aspects of ESA’s leadership in this area is how they actively put resources into projects that seek to actively remove debris, leaving our planet’s orbit cleaner and easier to get.
Five to ten years ago, you would have struggled to find anyone, anywhere connecting the words “continuity” and “space.” That’s changing, and rightly so. But this is not the time to sit back and think that everything will be fine. If the space industry is to thrive in the 21st century, sustainability must become a core part of its ethos.
What may start with polite applause from the periphery for sustainability initiatives will undoubtedly lead to financial disincentives and eventually the law. Although most people are excited and inspired by rocket launches, the space industry is unlikely to get a free pass for much longer.