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Space Tourism, Climate Change and the Need for Sustainable Space Exploration
Alex Steffen, 25 Oct 10

Will space tourism be a major climate change propellant? A new study reported in Nature finds that the impacts of a commercial space industry could be serious, even catastrophic:

[E]missions from 1,000 private rocket launches a year would persist high in the stratosphere, potentially altering global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone. The simulations show that the changes to Earth's climate could increase polar surface temperatures by 1 °C, and reduce polar sea ice by 5–15%.

"There are fundamental limits to how much material human beings can put into orbit without having a significant impact," says Martin Ross, an atmospheric scientist...

Given how rapidly the aerospace industry is growing, how much demand for space tourism there seems to be among the very wealthy, and how big these impacts are, these findings seem to demand serious attention.

Indeed, we would seem to need a much greater focus on sustainable space exploration in general. We're serious supporters of space programs as a way to understand and protect the home planet. That said, today's aerospace technologies present many environmental and social equity challenges. I've written before about the need for environmental law in space. Now it seems pressure needs to be exerted on limiting the emissions of rocket tourists.

Perhaps it's time for an advocacy group, Sustainable Space?


Image of crescent moon in Earth's atmosphere courtesy of NASA.

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Interestingly, Arthur C. Clarke cited the same concerns in his novel 'The Fountains of Paradise' when his protagonist was promoting the construction of a space elevator.

understand and protect the home planet.
I suppose we are talking Virgin Galactic here, but what is the current status of NASA's mission statement on this topic?


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 25 Oct 10

"but what is the current status of NASA's mission statement on this topic?"

Good question!


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 25 Oct 10

I like space. However space is filled with radiation. Spaace is sustainable just the way it is. The few rockets a day that Virgin is going to send up is insignificant to the pollution of cars, powerplants and backyard barbeques. This new economy has the potential to change the world. Solar power beamed down from space could eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels alone. Key words in the statement are "potentially" and "could."


Posted by: Mike on 26 Oct 10

Mike, 1000 trips/year may seem insignificant compared with the pollution emitted by cars, but it's where that pollution ends up that is significant.

Stuff that reaches the stratosphere hangs around.

Missions like the Orbiting Carbon Observatory might be seen as a return to that little missive to the home planet, (assuming OCO-2 doesn't also suffer an 'accident').


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 26 Oct 10

Yes these technologies may have a small effect on the environment (one of which is global cooling), but as was stated;l the advancement of space technology will help build a better future here on Earth. You have the potential for space based solar power. You have the potential for mining fission reactor fuel on other planets. Furthermore, these commercial space activities are in their infancy. There are launch technologies that put no soot or C02 in the atmosphere (LOX/LH2, beamed power), and as this industry grows it will become cleaner. The 1000 flights a year is just a best case scenario for the industry by 2020, and we will be nowhere close to that for some time. The commercial human space industry has a vested interest in not harming the environment, they know its bad for business these days. If we attempt to stop these technologies now, we will lose out technological supremacy, and we loose future technology that will enable a better cleaner future for us all.


Posted by: Barry on 27 Oct 10

Yes these technologies may have a small effect on the environment (one of which is global cooling), but as was stated, the advancement of space technology will help build a better future here on Earth. You have the potential for space based solar power. You have the potential for mining fission reactor fuel on other planets. Furthermore, these commercial space activities are in their infancy. There are launch technologies that put no soot or C02 in the atmosphere (LOX/LH2, beamed power), and as this industry grows it will become cleaner. The 1000 flights a year is just a best case scenario for the industry by 2020, and we will be nowhere close to that for some time. The commercial human space industry has a vested interest in not harming the environment, they know its bad for business these days. If we attempt to stop these technologies now, we will lose out technological supremacy, and we loose future technology that will enable a better cleaner future for us all.


Posted by: Barack on 27 Oct 10

The study is more than a bit misleading. It assumes that all those flights use the specific rubber-burning rockets that Virgin Galactic is using now. This technology is similar to Morton Thiokol's solid booster technology for the Space Shuttle, which really was horribly polluting. But such technology is easily replaced by completely clean systems, for instance oxygen-hydrogen rockets, which produce water vapour as their sole waste product. No practical long-term technology for reaching space would use something inefficient enough to create *soot*--simple efficiency considerations rule it out. Even the nuclear rockets tested in the 1960s used hydrogen as their fuel, and near-term systems like beamed-power launchers could power themselves off wind or solar and use hydrogen as reaction mass, achieving hundreds or even thousands of launches *per day* without releasing any carbon at all.

Soot is an issue for Virgin in their current suborbital tourist-ship design; for the future of economical space access, it's not an issue at all.


Posted by: Karl Schroeder on 27 Oct 10

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