The Hot Zone

Commerical space travel could threaten the climate

Posted by Alison Hawkes on October 25, 2010
Category : The man made climate

Commercial spaceflight could open up all kinds of new opportunities that would expand the limitations of Earth. Mining asteroids for heavy metals, energy generation through solar power satellites, and space tourism are all ideas that are being explored as companies seek ways to make business out of the Final Frontier.

With companies like Spaceport America opening the world’s first commercial spaceport in Las Cruces, New Mexico earlier this month and Virgin Galactic now booking $200,000 space tours, it seems the future of space travel could be right around the bend. Congress is investing $1.6 billion in private space-flight investments through NASA to kick-start the fledgling industry, particularly in the outsourcing of astronaut and cargo transport.

Check out a video of the Spaceport America dedication:

Not to put a damper on all the hype, but it seems there’s been one overlooked aspect of expanding travel into space. As you can imagine knowing the kind of damage that landlubbing and ocean-spewing vehicles wreak on the climate, spacebound vehicles will also contribute to global warming. A paper published in a recent journal of the Geophysical Research Letters indicates that emissions from 1,000 private rocket launches a year could increase the surface temperatures at the poles by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit and reduce polar sea ice between 5-15 percent.

The author, Martin Ross, an atmospheric scientist at the Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles, came up with the estimate using global atmospheric models that took into account the emissions of 600 tons of black carbon a year above Las Cruces. The results showed a soot layer persisted within 10 degrees latitude in the stratosphere the spaceport, while some 80 percent of it spread to 25-45 degrees. This caused a cooling effect in the tropics and subtropics, while the poles got warmer. Ozone was also reduced in the tropics, while increasing at the poles.

The scientists believe the results show that private rocket launches could alter circulation in the atmosphere and the distribution of ozone — surprisingly even with emissions that occur at one point (the spaceport).

The big problem with dumping emissions into the stratosphere is that, unlike the atmosphere near the Earth’s surface, rain and weather never wash them away. Maybe it’s wise for the nascent space travel to go green with low-emissions vehicles right from initial take off.

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