Last week saw the opening of the world’s first spaceport in New Mexico, and while it may be ushering in a new era of adventure, some scientists believe that space tourism flights could increase changes to the Earth’s climate. The report, which was published in Geophysical Research Letters, stated that commercial space flights would emit large amonts of black carbon (soot) as well as altering global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone in the stratosphere.

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Martin Ross, one of the authors of the paper, said that simulations predicted that over 1,000 space flights a year 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,” Ross said, who is also an atmospheric scientist at the Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles, California.

Currently, commercial rockets burn a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen that release large amounts of carbon. Several companies are attempting to change this however by developing a more economical ‘hybrid’ rocket engine that ignites synthetic hydrocarbon with nitrous oxide. However the authors of the paper say that these new hybrid engines emit even more black carbon than a kerosene and oxygen engine.

“Rain and weather wash out these particles from the atmosphere near Earth’s surface, but in the stratosphere there isn’t any rain and they can remain for 3 to 10 years,” says Michael Mills, an atmospheric chemist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, who co-wrote the paper.

Private space flights or ‘space tourism’ is a rapidly growing industry, headed by Virgin’s Richard Branson. The new space port in New Mexico was funded by Virgin and is expected to be the home base for  the Virgin Galactic flagship – SpaceShip Two.

Over the next three years, private space companies such as Virgin Galactic, are expected to make up to two launches per day for space tourists. Meanwhile Congress has passed the NASA Authorization Act seeing more than US$1.6 billion invested in new private spacecraft, that will take cargo and passengers into orbit.

+ Geophysical Research Papers

Via Nature News

Image © Virgin Galactic