Space tourism is starting to worry experts about potential environmental concerns

Richard Branson’s trip to space this month aboard a Virgin Galactic spacecraft was set to be a triumphant return after years of waiting. Instead, the trip has drawn widespread criticism for its carbon footprint.

(Photo: Image seen from space)

The developing space tourism sector faces serious concerns about its environmental effect, with Jeff Bezos slated to fly on a Blue Origin rocket on July 20 and Elon Musk’s SpaceX planning an all-civilian orbital trip in September.

Currently, rocket launches do not occur frequently enough to cause substantial pollution.

“Compared to other human activities or even commercial aircraft, the carbon dioxide emissions are completely miniscule,” NASA senior climate adviser Gavin Schmidt told AFP.

Potential long-term damage

However, other scientists are concerned about the potential for long-term damage as the company expands, including affecting the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, which is currently poorly understood.

Virgin Galactic, which has been chastised in editorials on CNN and Forbes and on social media for flying its wealthy creator into space in a fossil fuel-intensive spacecraft for minutes, says its carbon emissions are comparable to a business-class flight from London to New York.

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Take precautions

In a statement to AFP, the company said it “has already made efforts to offset carbon emissions from its test flights and is evaluating opportunities to offset carbon emissions for future passenger travel. , as well as reducing the carbon footprint of our supply chain.”

According to an estimate published in The Conversation by French astrophysicist Roland Lehoucq and colleagues, although transatlantic flights carry hundreds of passengers, Virgin’s emissions amount to around 4.5 tonnes per passenger in a six-passenger trip. .

Darin Toohey, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told AFP: “The problem here is really one of disproportionate impact.”

“I grew up watching the space program, and that’s what got me interested in science,” he added. “However, if someone offered me a free flight, I would be very hesitant to accept it because I would know that my personal footprint is much larger than it should be.”

Cleaner fuels

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo runs on a form of synthetic rubber that’s burned in nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

The fuel injects black carbon into the upper stratosphere at a height of 30 to 50 kilometers (18 to 30 miles).

Once in the atmosphere, these particles can have a variety of effects, from reflecting sunlight and triggering a nuclear winter to accelerating chemical reactions that deplete the ozone layer, which protects people. dangerous radiation.

“We could be in a dangerous position,” Toohey said, adding that more scientific research into the consequences is needed before launches become more common.

Future flights

Virgin said it plans to operate 400 flights each year.

According to a recent post by Aerospace scientist Martin Ross, which Bezos’ company posted on Twitter, Blue Origin’s spaceplanes are much cleaner than Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplanes.

Like those of Virgin and Blue Origin, suborbital launches have negligible impact unlike orbital rockets.

X space launch

In September, SpaceX will launch four individuals into space using their Falcon 9 rocket, which is estimated to emit the equivalent of 395 transatlantic flights in carbon emissions.

“We live in an age of climate change, and launching an activity that increases emissions as part of a tourist activity is not the right time,” said Annette Toivonen, author of “Sustainable space tourism.

Climate Conscious

The world is considerably more aware of the climate catastrophe today than when these companies were founded in the early 2000s, which may motivate companies to seek methods to reduce pollution through cleaner technologies to to stay one step ahead of the problem.

“Who wants to be a space tourist if they can’t tell people they’re a space tourist?” Toivonen, a senior lecturer at the Finnish University of Applied Sciences Haaga-Helia, said.

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