Space tourism is human space travel for recreational purposes. A few well-known billionaires have taken rocket rides in recent years and at least a dozen companies are at the vanguard of what they are expecting to be a burgeoning industry. If space tourism truly takes off – pun intended – it could be a serious threat to the climate and the environment.
Black carbon – essentially soot – is emitted when fossil fuels, including rocket fuels, are burned. Black carbon absorbs light from the sun and releases thermal energy, making it a powerful climate warming agent. At lower altitudes, black carbon quickly falls from the sky, remaining in the atmosphere for only a matter of days or weeks.
Rockets are another story entirely. They dump black carbon into the stratosphere as they blast into space, and up there black carbon is 500 times worse for the climate and sticks around for several years.
A detailed study by researchers at University College London looked at the climate impact of present-day space launches compared with the potential massive expansion of launches from a large space tourism industry.
The overall result is that current space launches are not a significant source of emissions, but space launches would become incredibly significant if projections of tourist space flights proved to be true. Currently, there are roughly 100 space launches a year world-wide. If that number becomes thousands, the impact on the climate would be substantial.
The same researchers looked at the ozone impact of rocket launches and reached a similar conclusion. The current impact of spaceflights is not very significant, but a massive increase in launches could have a major impact on atmospheric ozone concentrations.
Space tourism may be exciting, but it also could be very dangerous for the planet.
Photo, posted May 30, 2020, courtesy of Daniel Oberhaus (2020) via Flickr.