Yes, space tourism is destroying the ozone layer, study finds

The wealthiest among us love the latest boom in space tourism, and industry leaders like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin love to tout statistics about how much carbon dioxide their flights are releasing into the atmosphere. However, these quick space jaunts aren’t exactly climate-neutral.

Scientists suspect that spaceflight could contribute to climate change even if it does not use traditional CO2-emitting jet fuels. Other particles produced by rockets could be irreversible damage to the ozone layer, according to a new study by University College London, the University of Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The research, which was published in the journal Earth’s future, calls for urgent mitigation before the space tourism industry really takes off. “What we really need now is a discussion among experts on the best strategy to regulate this rapidly growing industry,” said co-author Dr. Eloise Marais.

About that soot… — This research team has found that rocket launches are actually far worse for the planet than your typical airplane flight. Indeed, the launches give off particles of “black carbon”, also called soot. black carbon has an impact on global warming between 460 and 1,500 times stronger than CO2 per unit mass.

Although rocket-produced black carbon damage has not yet eroded the planet’s ozone significantly, researchers have found that growth trends indicate that the upper stratospheric ozone layer in the Arctic will be damaged as soon as possible. We are talking about black carbon injected directly into the upper atmosphere.

The research team created models to predict how quickly the space tourism industry could pose a real risk to the ozone layer. The amount of warming due to soot will more than double in the next three years if it continues unchecked, thanks in part to the use of kerosene by SpaceX and hybrid synthetic rubbers by Virgin Galactic.

Is taxation enough? — The ozone layer isn’t as much of a talking point on climate change as it used to be, thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which banned substances that contribute to ozone depletion in the atmosphere. The upper stratosphere has shown significant recovery since the adoption of the Montreal Protocol – and that’s where these rockets leave soot.

A handful of lawmakers have attempted to introduce a “space tax” that would charge passengers a premium on top of their rocket tickets. A 10% tax won’t remove all that soot from the atmosphere, however. The researchers call for more studies to be done on the influence of new fuel by-products like liquid methane and biofuels.

“The conversation about regulating the environmental impact of the space launch industry needs to start now so that we can minimize damage to the stratospheric ozone layer and climate,” said co-author Dr Robert Ryan.

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