Next Frontier: Carbon Emissions … From Space!


Space tourism might sound like a vacation that’s well, out of this world, but making trips to the great beyond (in hopes, perhaps, of nabbing that Foursquare badge from astronaut Douglas Wheelock) will come at a heavy price for the climate. A new study shows that over a period of 10 years, private rocket launches could produce enough black carbon emissions to change global temperatures and accelerate climate change.

The study, which is being published by Geographical Research Letters, looks at the potential impact of commercial space tourism by running simulations of the black carbon, or soot, emissions from Las Cruces, N.M., reported on Friday. Las Cruces is home to the recently opened Spaceport America, where companies such as Virgin Galactic plan to launch commercial space flights within three years.

Sir Richard Branson isn’t the only tycoon who wants in on the space party. Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk also dreams of bringing space travel to the common folk. Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, in 2002 and has poured a lot of his personal fortunes into the company. SpaceX, based in southern California, ran a successful flight to the Earth’s orbit with its Falcon 9 in June this year.

The simulations, conducted by researchers from Aerospace Corp. in Los Angeles and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., show that black carbon emitted by 1,000 rocket launches per year over a 10-year period would lead to a layer of soot hovering in the stratosphere within 10 degrees latitude of the launch pad. With this many launches, temperatures at the polar regions would be expected to change by 1 degree Celsius and melt polar sea ice by as much as 15 percent.

Nature points out plans by some companies, including Virgin, to use a hybrid rocket engine that burns synthetic hydrocarbon and nitrous oxide, will produce more black carbon than what can come from conventional rocket engines, which run on a cocktail of kerosene and liquid oxygen.

The researchers want to do more detailed studies on the potential impact of commercial space flight and hope to enlist the help of this fledging industry. Certainly, it’d be a good idea to start planning for ways to cut the industry’s carbon footprint before it becomes a big business. Spaceport is already eager to market itself as a greentech supporter. It’s looking for developers to build solar power plants on site.

The federal government already has committed big money to help these private companies become space carriers. Congress recently approved $1.6 billion for NASA to fund private projects that can bring astronauts and cargos to the International Space Station.

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