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Space activities erupt more and more frequently today. It would be easy to think that what happens in space does not affect us. But the reality is that it does, and each time in less subtle ways.
The current news these days is the competition between Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, two billionaires who are behind two space tourism companies.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin had planned to launch its maiden flight on July 20. In response, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic scheduled its own flight for the 11th. Going ahead by a few days.
Both flights have been surrounded by a wide media display. And it is that these flights have been, neither more nor less, enormous marketing maneuvers. The goal is to attract attention.
Space tourism comes with the promise of “democratizing space.” But this phrase, repeated like a mantra, is often pronounced void of content. Not because space tourism is still only within the reach of a minority, but also because of the ecological impact that can be derived from the generalization of these activities.
The general population is getting used to the idea of using fewer planes and more trains; and eat less meat. Those are just part of the changes we will have to make if we want a just ecological transition. Meanwhile, space tourism emerges as an inaccessible and highly polluting activity.
Reaching space is, in the first place, very costly energetically. The fact is, we don’t have enough energy. Fossil fuels are at the root of climate change. The so-called renewable energies and nuclear are not without problems and limitations.
So yes, reaching into space has carbon dioxide emissions associated with it. In other words, a carbon footprint.
Although the environmental impact of space launches has not been sufficiently studied, it is known that it goes beyond carbon emissions. The release of gases in the upper layers of the atmosphere during space launches has negative effects on the ozone layer. A gas frequently emitted in launches and apparently innocuous as water vapor contributes to the greenhouse effect.
There are quite a few types of fuel that are used and some are toxic when released at launch or by their production process. The good news is that most of the new launch systems use liquid fuels, less problematic in this regard than solid ones.
Rockets themselves usually have different orbits around our planet as their destination. We must clarify that, on the other hand, Virgin Atlantic and Blue Origin tourist flights are “suborbital” flights. That is, they do not enter orbit, but rise up to 80 and 100 km in height respectively, experience zero gravity for a short period of time, and fall back to Earth.
Suborbital flight requires vastly less energy than going into orbit. For this reason, its cost is more affordable and its ecological footprint, lower.
Currently about 100 rockets are launched a year. Its carbon footprint is still less than that of the 100,000 airplanes that fly every day in the world. But the space sector is experiencing strong growth. Therefore, its environmental impact could become very relevant.
Luxury tourism and carbon dioxide emissions
The international awareness and regulation of environmental impact is therefore one of the aspects in which the management of space activities will have to improve. While it is true that launching a satellite into Earth orbit has a greater impact than a suborbital tourist flight, satellites can benefit many people. Whereas a tourist flight is a luxury for a limited number of people.
To put it in numbers. Each Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin sightseeing flight is estimated to emit about 60 and 90 tons of carbon dioxide, respectively. That is, about 8 and 15 tons per passenger.
In comparison, on average, each person in the world emits about 4.8 tons of carbon dioxide each year. This figure is very different between rich and poor countries. In the United States the figure is 15 tons. In Spain it is 5.4 tons. Although these data can vary considerably according to different sources. China is a big polluter, but when its emissions per capita are considered, the value is 7.4 tons.
A questionable footprint
Therefore, the carbon footprint of these suborbital flights is not extremely high compared to other activities. But it is still questionable that at a time when it is urgent to reduce our environmental impact, this new form of leisure emerges. Accessible only to a minority and that means that each passenger emits in just a few minutes the same carbon dioxide as 2 or 3 people on average during a whole year.
Let us remember that to this carbon footprint we must add other environmental impacts of this activity, such as the erosion of the ozone layer.
All this reminds us of the need to reorient our way of thinking and being in the world, to move towards a more just and sustainable world. The space, well managed, can bring positive changes for all of us. But we must not be dazzled by blind optimism based solely on technological development.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original.
Jorge Hernández Bernal does not receive a salary, nor does he carry out consulting work, nor does he own shares, nor does he receive financing from any company or organization that can benefit from this article, and he has declared that he lacks relevant links beyond the academic position cited.