The race to start space tourism has begun, with the founder of the Virgin Group – billionaire Richard Branson – and theformer CEO of Amazon is founder of Blue Origin –Jeff Bezos– who have never before “started their engines” to bring as many tourists into space.
Last 11 July, Branson rose over 50 miles (80 km) – the dividing line, recognized by NASA, the US military and the US Federal Aviation Administration – to reach the boundary of space in VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo of the company.
Yesterday however, it is happened successfully the launch of the autonomous rocket Blue Origin by Bezos, which coincided with the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing (as planned) going over 66.5 miles (107 km), crossing the Kármán demarcation line set at 62 miles (100 km), recognized by many people as the boundary with space.
Although Bezos lost in the timeline, he still set the altitude record and, from a certain point of view, he could also be called the first to cross the boundary with space, depending on which method of analysis you want to use (line of demarcation of NASA or of Kármán).
The launch showcased the offer proposed by Bezos and Blue Origin for the space tourism which, of course, is still limited to very wealthy tourists.
Both the Branson and Bezos space tourism package will provide passengers with a short but fun moment of ten minutes in zero gravity, and the possibility of see glimpses of the Earth from space.
Obviously, the person who first started all this could not be missing, namely Elon Musk who, not to be outdone, with his SpaceX will provide four to five days of orbital travel with its Crew Dragon capsule, but that only later in 2021.
What are the likely environmental consequences of a space tourism industry?
Although space tourism is indeed the future, we cannot ignore the consequences that this could lead to our, already in crisis, Planet.
Bezos boasts that its Blue Origin rockets are greener than Branson’s VSS Unity, in fact the Blue Engine 3 (BE-3) who launched Bezos, his brother and two guests into space, used liquid hydrogen is liquid oxygen propellants.
On the other hand we find the VSS Unity who used a hybrid propellant consisting of a carbon-based solid fuel, polybutadiene hydroxyl terminated (HTPB) and a liquid oxidant, nitrous oxide (laughing gas).
As usual, the comparison that SpaceX, the series of reusable rockets could not miss SpaceX Falcon that will propel the Crew Dragon into orbit, will use liquid kerosene and liquid oxygen.
The combustion of these propellants provides the energy needed to launch rockets into space and launch space tourism, but of course it also generates greenhouse gases and air pollutants.
Large amounts of water vapor are produced by burning the BE-3 propellant, while the combustion of both the Unity and Falcon VSS fuels produces CO₂, soot and some water vapor. The nitrogen-based oxidant used by VSS Unity also generates nitrogen oxides, compounds that contribute to air pollution closer to Earth.
About two-thirds of the propellant exhaust gases are released into the stratosphere (12 km-50 km) and mesosphere (50 km-85 km), where it can persist for at least two to three years, plus very high temperatures during launch and reentry (when the protective heat shields of the return media burn out), they also convert stable nitrogen in the air into reactive nitrogen oxides.
These gases and particles have many negative effects on the atmosphere.
In the stratosphere, nitrogen oxides and chemicals formed by the degradation of water vapor they convert ozone into oxygen, depleting the ozone layer that protects life on Earth from harmful UV rays. Water vapor also produces stratospheric clouds which provide a surface for this reaction to take place at a faster rate than it would otherwise.
So does space tourism really have such a hard impact on our planet?
Exhaust emissions of CO₂ and soot trap heat in the atmosphere, contributing to global warmingcooling of the atmosphere can also occur, as the clouds formed by the emitted water vapor reflect incoming sunlight into space.
A depleted ozone layer would also absorb less incoming sunlight and thus heat the stratosphere less.
Understanding the overall effect of rocket launches on the atmosphere will require detailed modeling, in order to take into account these complex processes and the persistence of these pollutants in the upper atmosphere, and the same important is a clear understanding of how the space tourism industry will develop.
Virgin Galactic’s plan for space tourism is to offer 400 space flights each year to the privileged few who can afford them, while on the other hand Blue Origin and SpaceX have yet to announce their plans.
Second Eloise Marais, Associate Professor of Physical Geography at UCL, globally, rocket launches are not expected to increase by much from the current roughly 100 performed annually to induce damaging effects that are competitive with other sources, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which deplete the ozone layer and CO₂ from aircraft.
During launch, the rockets can emit four to ten times more nitrogen oxides than Drax, the UK’s largest thermal power plant, over the same period, plus CO₂ emissions for the roughly four tourists on a space flight will be between 50 to 100 times that of one to three tons per passenger on a long-haul flight.
In order for international regulators to keep up with the nascent space tourism industry, and adequately control its pollution, scientists need a better understanding of the effect these billionaire astronauts will have on our planet’s atmosphere.
In the same way, however, we also find a small reality that, in addition to space tourism, also thinks about the environment, this is the bluShift Aerospace we told you about some time ago which, in my opinion, could be an inspiration for the “older ones”.
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