The Billionaire Space Race Has Big Climate Costs

There’s a spectator sport quality to the billionaire space race. Pick your favorite rich guy and your favorite rocket—Elon Musk’s Falcon 9, Richard Branson’s VSS Unity, Jeff Bezos’s New Shepard—and start your own cheering section. And while it’s not always easy to root for the fabulously rich to get even more fabulous, there’s something in the space race for all of us. As space tourism grows, so does the price of flight. We can all get our astronaut wings by wishing we were.

A new study was published in this journal, but it does not support these findings. Earth’s FutureAll the joyriding may come with a high environmental cost. Black soot is injected more often into the atmosphere by rocket launches. This includes pollutants like nitrous oxide and aluminum oxide as well as water vapour and carbon dioxide. This all contributes to both global warming and the loss of the ozone.

There’s been limited information on the emissions impact of space travel, the study notes. This sector is also not covered by international climate agreements. The new paper, therefore, “allows us to enter the new era of space tourism with our eyes wide open to the potential impacts,” said co-author Robert Ryan, a research fellow at the University College London’s geography department, in a statement. “The conversation about regulating the environmental impact of the space industry needs to start now so we can minimize harm to the stratospheric ozone layer and climate.”

To conduct their work, the researchers chose 2019—before the three companies began carrying crews to space—as a baseline. In that year, there were 103 space launches worldwide—most by government-run space exploration programs—all of which contributed their own pollutants to the atmosphere. Space tourism is only a fraction of this, according to Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX. Virgin SpaceX, SpaceX, and Blue Origin have carried one crew each of space tourists since 2020. Blue Origin, however, has flown five people to the International Space Station. But this slow start doesn’t mean that there aren’t big plans.

Virgin boasts it will launch on a daily basis. Blue Origin, however, is slowing down and aiming for double the number of launches. SpaceX has a more mixed bag. SpaceX is not likely to launch nearly as many crews because of the $50 million cost to fly to Earth orbit on its Crew Dragon spacecraft. This compares to the $450,000 Virgin charged for 12-minute suborbital flights. Blue Origin is not yet revealing the prices it will be charging for tickets once regular flights start. But SpaceX’s nine-engine Falcon 9 rocket—which launches the company’s crewed spacecraft—also carries satellite payloads and NASA astronauts to the International Space Station and is the workhorse of the company’s fleet. There have been 159 Falcon 9 launches since the first one, more than 10 years ago. SpaceX also has the Falcon Heavy rocket (27 engines) and its 33-engine Super Heavy rocket. This will be the third flight of this spacecraft. These three companies may eventually surpass the total of 103 launches in 2019, if taken together.

Black soot is among the most dangerous pollutants released by rockets. While conventional aircraft and other vehicles emit a lot of heat-trapping soot, it is not as much as rockets. When expelled into the upper atmosphere—at altitudes of 50 km (38 mi) or more—black soot is 500 times more efficient at causing warming than it is when emitted by, say, a commercial airliner flying at a mere 11,000 m (35,000 ft.).

“[Black soot]Directly injected into the upper atmosphere is more efficient than any other source for climate-forcing. [of pollution],” the authors write. That’s bad news every time a rocket flies but it’s especially bad given the billionaire space race. According to the authors, three years of tourism flights at this frequency would more than double the amount of black soot emissions from contemporary rocket launches.

The private rocket companies push back at this, especially Bezos’s Blue Origin, which uses liquid hydrogen and oxygen as its fuel and thus produces less-damaging exhaust. “New Shepard’s engine is fueled by highly efficient and clean liquid oxygen and hydrogen. During flight, the only byproduct of New Shepard’s engine combustion is water vapor with no carbon emissions,” said a company spokesperson in an email to TIME. However, water vapor does not have any greenhouse gas impacts.

It’s not just the warming effect of tourism flights that worries the researchers; so too does the damage to the ozone layer. The 1987 Montreal Protocol, phasing out the use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, has long been seen as one of the environmental movement’s great success stories. However, rocket exhaust can do serious damage to the ozone.

The researchers expect an increase of ozone in 2020 at the current rate of rocket launches. That’s 10% more than the Montreal accords. Add the billionaire rocketeers into the mix, and the loss jumps to 13 parts per billion—or 16% of what was recovered by Montreal. “The only part of the atmosphere showing strong ozone recovery post-Montreal Protocol is the upper stratosphere, and that is exactly where the impact of rocket emissions will hit hardest,” said Ryan in his statement. “We weren’t expecting to see ozone changes of this magnitude, threatening the progress of ozone recovery.”

The greatest loss in ozone is in the spring in the Arctic—stripping away part of the Earth’s shield against dangerous ultraviolet rays from space, and harming humans and the underlying ecosystem. Not only is the rocket’s exhaust a problem, but so too is the reentry of second-stage multi-stage rockets and their incineration. Virgin and Blue Origin, whose rockets are completely reusable, are not to blame. This is the part that causes ozone depletion, and it’s SpaceX and other orbital launches with expendable stage. They do quite a bit of it: 51% of all rocket-related ozone losses are due to reentry incineration.

The billionaire space race was never going to come cheap—those head-spinning ticket prices alone prove that. But increasingly it seems that it’s not just the tourists who are paying the freight; it’s the environment—and thus the rest of us—too.

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