The carbon footprint of space tourism

As the first commercial runway to outer space opens in New Mexico, a new study predicts the atmospheric costs of space tourism.
Written by Melissa Mahony, Contributor

Spending time in outer space would be pretty sweet, I imagine. But at such hefty travel fares, I'll likely settle for mundane locales like Rome, Buenos Aires, or even Antarctica. For those few who can swing it financially, however, the emerging industry came one step closer to reality on Friday.

Spaceport Americacompleted the first commercial runway for private space travel in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Within three years, Virgin Galactic hopes to launch flights from the desert into the final frontier. The
 two-mile-long, 42-inch-thick runway

But while tourists might be looking to escape Earthly cares, what trails behind them could be worrisome.

A new study estimates the environmental impact that daily blast-offs from a specific location would have on the atmosphere. Based on a 40-year climate model, the research examines the spacecrafts' expected greenhouse gas emissions, and what may be a bigger problem for the industry, soot deposits in the stratosphere. Plainly speaking, a big black cloud.

Scientific American discusses the study's findings, to be published in Geophysical Research Letters:

If the space tourism industry matures to the point that 1,000 hybrid-powered suborbital flights depart annually, those trips would deposit roughly 600 metric tons of soot into the stratosphere each year. Over decades of launches, those emissions would form a persistent and asymmetric cloud over the northern hemisphere that could impact atmospheric circulation and regional temperatures far more than the greenhouse gases released into the stratosphere by those same flights.

The soot may also affect seasonal temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere and ozone concentrations at the poles and at tropical latitudes, says the study. The researchers, Nature reports, attribute the high soot effluence on the future use of hybrid rocket motors, which Virgin Galactic and others are testing. These hydrocarbon and nitrous-oxide burning engines are cheaper than conventional engines, which run on kerosene and liquid oxygen.

As the industry grows nearer to take off, the scientists hope to work with the space-flight industry to fine-tune their climate models.

Earlier this month, President Obama signed the NASA Authorization Act, which allows NASA to spend $1.6 billion on helping commercial build rockets for transporting people and cargo to the International Space Station.

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Images: Virgin Galactic

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