Recently, space exploration pollution has drawn more attention and shouldn’t be overlooked.
The space industry should reach $1 trillion in annual revenue by 2040, with launch costs dropping 95%. More opportunities for technological advancement and innovation would arise from further reductions in the cost of space assessment, opening up more services from orbits like satellite broadband and manufacturing.
While much of the world is in awe of the space business soaring to new heights, scientists are concerned that the development and future of the space industry may damage the Earth’s atmosphere and exacerbate the effects of climate change.
The exploration and utilisation of space have largely ignored the environmental consequences of space activities. Space scientists have been treating satellites as single-use items for a long time, leading to today’s sustainability crisis. In addition, space debris increases the risk of damage to all space vehicles, including the International Space Station and other spacecraft with humans aboard, such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.
The environmental dangers of space debris are myriad, including light pollution that would hinder future scientific discovery. However, the right actions towards sustainable practices would increase the possibility for nations to utilise space productively. Furthermore, by addressing the issue of Earth’s degrading atmosphere, we can stop harmful patterns from becoming the norm and ensure that the planet’s resources are not mismanaged.
SpaceX plans on launching 395 flights in space annually. A single flight can reportedly generate a carbon footprint of 278 people combined. In addition, the fuel for its Falcon 9 engine consists of kerosene and liquid oxygen, which creates a lot of carbon dioxide when burnt. Holding 440 tonnes of fuel, SpaceX would release 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually if its plans of launching every two weeks are achieved.
These are the stats of just one company. Imagine the environmental consequences if more such companies start operating. In India Space Congress (ISC) 2022, organised by the Satcom Industry Association of India (SIA-India), many space tourism companies stated that they want to make space travel just like an Uber ride. This idea itself seems fascinating and progressive, but what about environmental damage? Isn’t the pollution caused by those very Uber rides enough?
The cost of launches has decreased as more businesses compete for commercial launches, which has been one factor. The price of launching a satellite into orbit has decreased, and new “constellations” of thousands of satellites for space-based Internet services are now feasible.
Even though the effects of rockets on the climate have not yet been fully investigated and understood, it is logical to assume that an activity that consumes millions of pounds of propellant in a matter of minutes will eventually impact the environment.
Most rockets are 95% fuel by weight. The amount of fuel needed for takeoff increases with the size of the rocket. The primary components of the fuel used in NASA’s solid booster rockets are ammonium perchlorate and aluminium powder. Aluminium oxide is created during the combustion of these two compounds, along with a number of other byproducts.
These aluminium oxide particles, previously believed to cool the Earth by reflecting solar flux into space, can cause global warming by absorbing emitted long-wave radiation.
Space launches have adverse effects on the environment. We need more research on sustainable space business practices. Space services are already a significant part of our life. Navigation satellites provide accurate location information. Weather satellites combined with improved computer technology allow the prediction of weather patterns weeks in advance. But the mid-21st century must bring new space business practices that are sustainable and open gates for space exploration for the generations to come.