The New Space Race Is Causing New Pollution Problems

By Shannon Hall

Earth’s stratosphere has never seen the amounts of emissions and waste from rockets and satellites that a booming space economy will leave behind.

The high-altitude chase started over Cape Canaveral on Feb. 17, 2023, when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched. Thomas Parent, a NASA research pilot, was flying a WB-57 jet when the rocket ascended past the right wing — leaving him mesmerized before he hit the throttle to accelerate.

For roughly an hour, Mr. Parent dove in and out of the plume in the rocket’s wake while Tony Casey, the sensor equipment operator aboard the jet, monitored its 17 scientific instruments. Researchers hoped to use the data to prove they could catch a rocket’s plume and eventually characterize the environmental effects of a space launch.

In the past few years, the number of rocket launches has spiked as commercial companies — especially SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk — and government agencies have lofted thousands of satellites into low-Earth orbit. And it is only the beginning. Satellites could eventually total one million, requiring an even greater number of space launches that could yield escalating levels of emissions.

SpaceX declined to comment about pollution from rockets and satellites. Representatives for Amazon and Eutelsat OneWeb, two other companies working toward satellite mega-constellations, said they are committed to sustainable operations. But scientists worry that more launches will scatter more pollutants in pristine layers of Earth’s atmosphere. And regulators across the globe, who assess some risks of space launches, do not set rules related to pollution.

Experts say they do not want to limit the booming space economy. But they fear that the steady march of science will move slower than the new space race — meaning we may understand the consequences of pollution from rockets and spacecraft only when it is too late. Already, studies show that the higher reaches of the atmosphere are laced with metals from spacecraft that disintegrate as they fall back to Earth.

We are changing the system faster than we can understand those changes,” said Aaron Boley, an astronomer at the University of British Columbia and co-director of the Outer Space Institute. “We never really appreciate our ability to affect the environment. And we do this time and time again.”

We Have Liftoff

When a rocket like the Falcon 9 lifts off, it typically takes about 90 seconds to punch through the lower atmosphere, or troposphere, before reaching the middle atmosphere. It was at the top of the troposphere that Mr. Parent began his pursuit, ultimately flying as high as the middle atmosphere, where the air’s density is so low that he and Mr. Casey had to wear pressure suits and heavyweight gloves, as well as helmets that provided them with oxygen.



IMPORTANTE!: Il materiale presente in questo sito (ove non ci siano avvisi particolari) può essere copiato e redistribuito, purché venga citata la fonte. NoGeoingegneria non si assume alcuna responsabilità per gli articoli e il materiale ripubblicato.Questo blog non rappresenta una testata giornalistica in quanto viene aggiornato senza alcuna periodicità. Non può pertanto considerarsi un prodotto editoriale ai sensi della legge n. 62 del 7.03.2001.