Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

World

Environmental concerns grow as space tourism lifts off

Richard Branson’s journey to space this month on a Virgin Galactic attracted significant criticism — about its carbon footprint.

Billionaire Richard Branson will take off from the Spaceport America base in New Mexico. — © AFP
Billionaire Richard Branson will take off from the Spaceport America base in New Mexico. — © AFP
Issam Ahmed

After years of waiting, Richard Branson’s journey to space this month on a Virgin Galactic vessel was supposed to be a triumphant homecoming. Instead, the jaunt attracted significant criticism — about its carbon footprint.

The competition in the space tourism sector, whose imminent advent has been announced for years, has come to a head this month; Jeff Bezos (left) is set to fly just days after Richard Branson (right). — © AFP

With Jeff Bezos set to launch on a Blue Origin rocket on July 20, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX planning an all-civilian orbital mission in September, the nascent space tourism industry finds itself facing tough questions about its environmental impact.

Right now, rocket launches as a whole don’t happen often enough to pollute significantly.

“The carbon dioxide emissions are totally negligible compared to other human activities or even commercial aviation,” NASA’s chief climate advisor Gavin Schmidt told AFP.

But some scientists are worried about the potential for longer term harm as the industry is poised for major growth, particularly impacts to the ozone layer in the still poorly understood upper atmosphere.

Environmental concerns grow as space tourism lifts off

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo uses a type of synthetic rubber as fuel and burns it in nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas – Copyright AFP/File MICHELE CATTANI

Virgin Galactic, which came under fire in op-eds on CNN and Forbes, as well as on social media, for sending its billionaire founder to space for a few minutes in a fossil fuel-guzzling spaceship, says its carbon emissions are about equivalent to a business-class ticket from London to New York.

The company “has already taken steps to offset the carbon emissions from its test flights and is examining opportunities to offset the carbon emissions for future customer flights, and reduce our supply chain’s carbon footprint,” it said in a statement to AFP.

But while transatlantic flights carry hundreds of people, Virgin’s emissions work out to around 4.5 tonnes per passenger in a six passenger flight, according to an analysis published by French astrophysicist Roland Lehoucq and colleagues in The Conversation.

That’s roughly equivalent to driving a typical car around the Earth, and more than twice the individual annual carbon budget recommended to meet the objectives of the Paris climate accord.

“The issue here is really one of disproportionate impacts,” Darin Toohey, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder told AFP.

“I actually grew up on the space program and that got me into science…. but if someone offered me a free ride, I would be very nervous taking it because I would know that my own footprint is way larger than it should be,” he said.

– Cleaner fuels possible –

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo uses a type of synthetic rubber as fuel and burns it in nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas.

The fuel pumps black carbon into upper stratosphere, 30-50 kilometers (18 to 30 miles) high.

Virgin Galactic plans the start of regular commercial operations from early 2022. The ultimate goal is to conduct 400 flights per year. — © Virgin Galactic

Once there, these particles can have multiple impacts, from reflecting sunlight and causing a nuclear winter effect, to accelerating chemical reactions that deplete the ozone layer, which is vital to protecting people from harmful radiation.

“We could be at a dangerous point,” said Toohey, who wants more scientific investigations into these effects before the launches become more frequent.

Virgin has said it wants to conduct 400 flights a year.

Compared to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplanes, Blue Origin’s are much cleaner, according to a recent paper by scientist Martin Ross of Aerospace, which Bezos’ company plugged on Twitter.

That’s because it burns liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, which combusts as water vapor.

Ross’ paper found Blue Origin’s vertical launch reusable rocket causes a hundred times less ozone loss and 750 times less climate forcing magnitude than Virgin’s, according to ballpark calculations.

But that doesn’t mean it’s totally clean.

“It takes electricity to make liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen,” Ross told AFP.

“You could go back and calculate how much electricity was used to make the propellant,” he said. “It depends how far back in the supply chain you look.”

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

– Space shaming? –

The impact of suborbital launches such as those by Virgin and Blue Origin pale in comparison to the impact of rockets that achieve orbit.

Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson (L) celebrates with crew members after flying into space aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel, a voyage he described as the “experience of a lifetime” – © AFP/File Ozan KOSE

When SpaceX puts four private citizens into space in September, it will use its Falcon 9 rocket, which calculations show puts out the equivalent of 395 transatlantic flights-worth of carbon emissions.

“We are living in the era of climate change and starting an activity that increases emissions as part of a tourism activity is not good timing,” Annette Toivonen, author of the book “Sustainable Space Tourism,” told AFP.

The world is far more aware of the climate crisis now than when these companies were founded in the early 2000s and that could encourage businesses to look at ways to minimize pollution through cleaner technologies to get ahead of the problem.

“Who would want to be a space tourist if you can’t tell people you were a space tourist?” argued Toivonen, who lectures at Finland’s Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences.

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

You may also like:

Tech & Science

High temperatures in the Arctic are melting Greenland's ice sheets rapidly.

Life

Florida hospitals reported more than 8,900 patients with COVID-19 on Thursday, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

World

China’s worst surge of coronavirus infections in months spread to two more areas - Copyright AFP STRLaurie CHENMushrooming outbreaks of the highly contagious Delta...

World

China's worst coronavirus outbreak in months has spread to two more parts of the country, health authorities said Saturday.