Fifty-two years ago Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin travelled into space in NASA’s Apollo 11, the former was the first man to step on the moon and it was definitely a proud moment for all of us, still is. But who knew that after all these years, travelling to space will become some sort of a game and competition for billionaires like Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.
Earlier this week, Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos flew into space in his Blue Origin New Shepard on Tuesday (July 20). The businessman was accompanied by his brother, an 18-year-old Oliver Daemen from the Netherlands and an 82-year-old aviation pioneer from Texas for a 10-minute flight on his company Blue Origin’s spacecraft.
Unlike Richard Branson’s piloted Virgin Galactic rocket plane, which was successfully launched on July 11, Bezos’ capsule was completely automated and required no official staff on board for the flight.
Yes, it is all fun and games until these space visits start contributing to global warming and cause damage to the atmosphere. Scientists have said that the emissions from rocket engines have historically been seen as small but as the frequency of launches increases and larger rockets are used, the impact is likely to grow.
Carbon emissions have to be taken seriously to protect the planet and its atmosphere. Science experts, Martin Ross and James Veda, had warned in 2018 that traditional rocket emissions trigger chemical reactions which deplete the ozone layer. Their paper also said that these space launches also inject particles into the stratosphere which absorb and reflect solar energy, heating the stratosphere while cooling the surface. These thermal changes also lead to the depletion of the ozone layer.
However, Blue Origin’s rocket was powered by a mix of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The propellants are much cleaner than conventional rocket fuel. But there is a debate over this as well.
Darin Toohey, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told Yulac.com that the main emissions from New Shepard would be “water and some minor combustion products, and virtually no CO2.“ But in his own paper co-authored by Mr Ross in 2019, he warned that “water vapour emissions from individual launches can notably impact the mesosphere and ionosphere” – two much higher layers in the atmosphere.
“Although not presently a global concern, at some increased launch rate, upper atmosphere launch plumes will become ubiquitous and so affect global mesospheric and ionospheric processes and properties,” the scientists said.
Branson’s VSS Unity rocket used a hybrid mix of solid and liquid propellants and Elon Musk’s Space X Falcon project relies on liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene called RP-1.
Flights create an ample amount of CO₂ emissions. For example, an economy-class flight from New York City to London emits the equivalent of 11 per cent of an individual’s average annual carbon emissions. And space demand remains tiny by comparison to airline carrier demand. For all of 2020, there were 114 attempted orbital launches in the world, according to NASA. That compares with the airline industry’s more than 100,000 flights each day on average, and COVID-19 impacted that number.
A SpaceX flight, for instance, generates the annual carbon footprint of 278 average world citizens.
Carbon emissions from rockets are small compared with the aircraft industry. But now, space travel emissions are increasing at nearly 5.6 per cent a year, said Eloise Marais, an associate professor of physical geography at University College London. Marais has been running a simulation for a decade.
On the other hand, Branson and Bezos’ trip to space has also caught the lawmakers attention, with a proposal to tax the trips just as conventional flights through the troposphere currently are.
“Space exploration isn’t a tax-free holiday for the wealthy, just as normal Americans pay taxes when they buy airline tickets, billionaires who fly into space to produce nothing of scientific value should do the same, and then some,” the Democrat from Oregon said.