There has been a lot of debate about the merits of space tourism over the last few years. Some see it as a luxury for the super-rich, others an opportunity to go where only a lucky few have gone before — but one thing that is unavoidable is the environmental impact. With Virgin Galactic officially announcing that next year will see the start of their space tourism flights, we look at the impact of the industry on our planet.
Firstly this writer would love to go into space. As a life-long sci-fi fan, it’s my life’s ambition to see the planet from orbit, but there has got to be a better way to do it than paying £121,000 for a ticket. For Virgin Galactic, the income potential is huge with over 550 sign-ups (totalling £67 million) since the concept was launched in 2004.
However, there is concern that ommercial space flights would emit large amonts of black carbon (soot) as well as altering global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone in the stratosphere. Currently, commercial rockets burn a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen that release large amounts of carbon. But several companies are attempting to change this by developing a more economical ‘hybrid’ rocket engine that ignites synthetic hydrocarbon with nitrous oxide. The downside? Studies show that these new hybrid engines emit even more black carbon than a kerosene and oxygen engine.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two, which is currently coming to the end of its testing phase and will be ready for commercial use next year, is the workhorse of the space tourism fleet. It will take customers to heights of 68 miles above the earth, breach the space boundary of 62 miles, and allow passengers to experience six minutes of weightlessness. Of course, it will need to burst through the atmosphere to do this and that is where the pollution concern comes from.
Speaking about the potential impact last year, Martin Ross, an atmospheric scientist at the Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles, California, said that over 1,000 space flights a year could increase polar surface temperatures by 1 °C, and reduce polar sea ice by 5-15 percent. “There are fundamental limits to how much material human beings can put into orbit without having a significant impact,” he said.
Still, at least Virgin chief Sir Richard Branson has named his spacecraft after the inspiration of many sci-fi fans — the first two ships in the fleet are named the VSS Enterprise and VSS Voyager, after the ships from the famous Star Trek shows.