Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, successfully flew to space and landed back on Earth this month, a move that has reignited the conversation about rocket pollution. Over the years, pollution caused by rocket launches has often been brushed away due to the few launches taking place. However, due to the recent billionaire space race, conservationists are raising concerns over the pollution these launches create.
Branson was part of a six-member crew that flew to space earlier this month in the inaugural Virgin Galactic flight. This flight opens doors for more people to visit space and joins other space shuttle companies such as Space X. With advancing rocket technology, the cost of touring space is decreasing and consequently attracting more tourists. Conservationists worry that the trend poses a threat to the environment, given the enormous amount of pollution rockets emit.
According to Eloise Marais, an associate professor of physical geography at University College London, one long-haul flight produces a maximum of 3 tons of carbon dioxide per passenger, while one rocket produces up to 300 tons for a trip of about four people. A report from Futurism also points out that the kerosene and methane rockets burn “can end up harming the ozone layer.”
For now, the number of rocket launches is still minimal. Last year, only 114 rockets attempted to reach orbit, a huge contrast to about 100,000 planes that take off every day. Still, there has been a significant increase in the number of rockets launched into space, and this number seems likely to rise in coming years. The worry is that these rockets emit everything from carbon dioxide to chlorine and other chemicals directly into the upper atmosphere, where they could stay for two to three years.
Marais says that the lack of regulation in the rocket industry is a problem that should be tackled to address the industry’s pollution. “We have no regulations currently around rocket emissions,” Marais said. “The time to act is now – while the billionaires are still buying their tickets.”
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