Space exploration is a hot topic of conversation right now. Now, maybe for the first time since the historic moon landing of Apollo 11, space travel is once again at an all-time high.
However, the emphasis has now moved to sustainability and the environmental impacts of space exploration programmes, as the frequency of launches is predicted to increase dramatically over the next ten years.
Table of Contents
Environmental Impacts of Space Exploration
A process that burns through millions of pounds of propellant in minutes is bound to have an impact on the environment, even if the effects of rockets on the climate have not been fully studied and understood.
- Space Debris
- Resource Extraction
- Spacecraft Fuel Leakages
- Impact on Celestial Bodies
- Light Pollution
- Energy Consumption
- Radio Frequency Interference
- Space Tourism Impact
- Increased Carbon Dioxide Emissions
- Contribution to Global Warming
- Hydrochloric Acid Production
- Space Shuttle’s Ozone Holes
1. Space Debris
Space trash is a result of the growing quantity of satellites, waste rocket stages, and other debris in Earth’s orbit. Operating satellites are at risk from this debris, which also has the potential to cause collisions that release more trash into the atmosphere.
2. Resource Extraction
The process of extracting the resources required to construct rockets and spacecraft may affect Earth’s ecosystem. Mining for minerals and metals needed for space exploration can have an impact on the environment, particularly if it is not done responsibly.
3. Spacecraft Fuel Leakages
Unintentional fuel leaks from spacecraft can happen during takeoff or in orbit, endangering other satellites and space missions as well as possibly contaminating the space environment.
4. Impact on Celestial Bodies
Space exploration missions, particularly those with landers or rovers, have the potential to unintentionally transmit microorganisms from Earth to other celestial worlds, so polluting and changing their habitats.
5. Light Pollution
Astronomical observations are impacted by light pollution caused by space operations. Satellite and space infrastructure lighting can affect amateur and professional astronomy by interfering with ground-based telescopes.
6. Energy Consumption
Energy resources are needed in large quantities for the manufacture and operation of space exploration systems. The total environmental impact includes the carbon footprint from spacecraft construction and launch.
7. Radio Frequency Interference
Satellites and spacecraft emit radio waves that have the potential to disrupt terrestrial communication networks as well as astronomical observations. The operation of communication networks and radio telescopes may be hampered by this interference.
8. Space Tourism Impact
Space tourism is a growing sector that raises its own set of environmental issues. Regular rocket launches for commercial space exploration may make some of the negative environmental effects—such as noise and air pollution—of space exploration worse.
9. Increased Carbon Dioxide Emissions
Most rockets have a mass of 95% fuel. A larger rocket will need more fuel to take off. While SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rockets run on kerosene-based fuel (RP-1), NASA’s Space Launch System’s (SLS) Core Stage “liquid engines” run on liquid oxygen and hydrogen.
During launch, RP-1 and oxygen combine to produce a large amount of carbon dioxide through burning. About 440 tonnes of kerosene are contained in each Falcon rocket, and RP-1 has a carbon content of 34%. Even though this is negligible in comparison to CO2 emissions worldwide, it could cause problems if SpaceX’s aim to launch every two weeks materialises.
10. Contribution to Global Warming
The primary fuels utilized in NASA’s solid booster rockets are ammonium perchlorate and aluminum powder. During combustion, these two molecules combine to generate aluminum oxide along with several additional products.
According to a critical study, these aluminum oxide particles—which were first believed to cool the Earth by reflecting solar flux into space—can increase global warming by absorbing long-wave radiation that is emitted into space.
11. Hydrochloric Acid Production
Large volumes of hydrochloric acid can be generated by the perchlorate oxidizers used in solid booster rockets to provide oxygen for combustion. This extremely corrosive acid dissolves in water as well. Hydrochloric acid can lower the pH of water in surrounding streams, making it too acidic for fish and other species to survive.
NASA discovered that pollutants like hydrochloric acid can also decrease the variety of plant species at launch sites, according to a technical manual discussing the environmental effects of space launches at the Kennedy Centre.
12. Space Shuttle’s Ozone Holes
As of yet, the space shuttle period provides the only direct measurements of how rocket launches affect atmospheric chemical processes. NASA, NOAA, and the U.S. Air Force organized a program in the 1990s to examine the impact of space shuttle solid fuel booster emissions on stratospheric ozone, as nations banded together to repair the ozone layer.
“In the 1990s, there were significant concerns about chlorine from solid rocket motors,” Ross stated. “Chlorine is the bad guy to ozone in the stratosphere, and there were some models which suggested that ozone depletion from solid rocket motors would be very significant.”
The scientists flew through the plumes created by the space shuttle rockets in Florida using NASA’s WB 57 high-altitude airplane. They were able to analyze the chemical processes in the lower stratosphere immediately following the rockets’ passage, reaching altitudes of up to 60,000 feet (19 km).
“One of the primary inquiries was the quantity and type of chlorine produced in these solid rocket motors,” said David Fahey, the study’s principal investigator and head of NOAA’s Chemical Sciences Laboratory, to Space.com.
“We took multiple measurements before analysing the data. This dispersed plume [left behind by the rocket] may locally lower the ozone layer, even though there were not enough space shuttle launches at the time to affect the planet.
Although the space shuttle was decommissioned ten years ago, ozone-depleting compounds are still produced by rockets that are used to send people and payloads into space.
In reality, in 2018 the World Meteorological Organisation highlighted rockets as a potential future issue in its latest, four-year Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion. The group demanded that additional research be conducted because an increase in launches is anticipated.
There is some justification for our curiosity. However, bear in mind that the same individual has destroyed Earth’s quality of life. Are we, as humans, treating our planet Earth seriously, regardless of whether life exists on other planets?
Given that the majority of our seas are yet uncharted, is space exploration worth all of this pollution from Earth and beyond? Earth has not yet been colonized by extraterrestrial life. Rather than searching for land on the moon, we should work to enhance life on Earth. There may be harmony among the aliens.
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A passion-driven environmentalist by heart. Lead content writer at EnvironmentGo.
I strive to educate the public about the environment and its problems.
It has always been about nature, we ought to protect not destroy.