Rocket launches could pollute our atmosphere in new ways

The bright effect of launching a missile into the sky

SpaceX, Blue Origin, and a host of other private companies helped make 2021 the year with Most space launches In history, but scientists say this crazy rush into space could cause even more damage to the atmosphere.

The number of attempts to launch double in the last decade. And after accounting for all the launches planned for 2022, it looks like the current year is he sat To blow the record last year. But the rocket launch comes With large emissionsAtmospheric influence is not fully understood.

Now, two scientists have added to body grows from suggest knowledge That the race to leave Earth could harm our planet and our health. The researchers pointed to an online video modeling the SpaceX launch in fine detail. Their simulations showed that the rocket’s exhaust threw a staggering amount of climate-changing carbon gases, as well as harmful nitrogen oxides, through multiple levels of the atmosphere.

“The importance of pollution from rockets should not be underestimated, as frequent rocket launches in the future could have a significant cumulative effect on the climate,” the researchers wrote in their report. paperPublished Tuesday in the Journal of Fluid Physics. They also pointed out the possibility that missile launches could become a danger to human health in the future.

“At the moment, the stakes are low due to a small number of launches,” Dimitris Drikakis, a physicist and engineer at the University of Nicosia in Cyprus and a co-author of the new study, explained in an email to Gizmodo. “The problem can become significant when frequent launches occur.”

Drikakis and his University of Nicosia colleague Ioannis Kokkinakis I specifically looked at the exhaust emissions from the computer model they built, which was supposed to closely match the 2016 model Thaicom-8 . launch SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which got its power from fuel RP-1, or Rocket Propelant-1, which is similar to jet fuel. The researchers looked at the role of heat, pressure, gas mixing, scattering patterns, and other factors to estimate rocket emissions at various altitudes and up to a maximum of 41.6 miles (67 kilometers) above the surface.

Earth’s atmosphere Multiple levels Depending on the altitude, each exhibits its own unique set of conditions. Drikakis and Kokkinakis continued to launch their model rocket from the near-Earth troposphere into the stratosphere and into the middle atmosphere.

Based on their models, the researchers estimated that a single Falcon 9 rocket produced about 116 metric tons of carbon dioxide in the first 165 seconds of its flight. “This amount is equivalent to that emitted by about 69 cars over the course of an entire year [in the United Kingdom],” Drikakis wrote to Gizmodo. To repeat: 69 car years of driving versus 165 seconds of rocket flight.

Carbon dioxide is accumulating in the lower atmosphere as we burn fossil fuels, the greenhouse gas largely responsible for human-caused climate change. But many of the emissions produced in the model study appeared in the atmosphere at high altitudes, where the climate effects of CO2 are not well understood than they are closer to Earth. For every kilometer the rocket climbed at the highest altitudes examined, the Falcon 9 simulator sent out a mass of carbon dioxide equal to 26 times the amount already contained in one cubic kilometer of the atmosphere.

At the same time, the rocket also released similar amounts of carbon monoxide and water vapor, which are usually only present in the atmosphere in trace amounts. This now adds to the list of incomprehensible atmospheric changes that missile launches can bring about.

Then there are the dreaded nitrogen oxides (NOx) to consider. on top of existence bad breath pollutants Which can lead to respiratory diseases, and these gases also degrade our atmosphere critical ozone layer. In the first 70 seconds of the considered launch, a SpaceX rocket produced an estimated one metric ton of nitrogen oxides, the equivalent of about 1,400 cars in annual emissions, according to Drakekis. Nitrogen oxides form best under high heat, so most of this release occurred in the lower atmosphere, specifically at altitudes less than 6.2 miles (10 km).

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases [types] emitted into the atmosphere can affect the climate, if emitted in sufficient quantities,” he said Eric Larson, a Harvard geologist who was not involved in the new research, in an email to Gizmodo. But he added that this paper does not actually assess the climatic effects of the missile launch.

Instead, Larson said the value of the study lies in its estimates of emissions quantities. He explained that the study “fills some gaps.” In particular, Larson believed that the most important “contribution” from the new research relates to nitrogen oxide production and the potential for ozone hazards, as opposed to assessments of direct effects on air quality. “It destroys the beneficial ozone layer,” he said. “I think the significant global impacts of rocketing nitrogen oxides emissions are likely to destroy stratospheric ozone rather than air quality.”

The ozone layer protects the surface of our planet from the sun’s most harmful rays. without him, a lot of life On earth he will die. And We almost lost it Once before due to chemical emissions. After the offending harmful compounds were banned, the ozone layer recovered, but it has been a constant concern ever since.

a UN Report 2018 It was concluded that rocket launches had a minimal effect (less than 0.1%) on ozone. But the loss of ozone due to missile launches It could be more than 10 times higher than previously assumed due to a lack of research on the topic, according to the new study. And again, there are many more rockets going into space now than there were four years ago.

It is important to reiterate that the new study is based on estimates and models, which means that it has significant limitations. “The atmosphere is a very complex system,” Drikakis said. He noted that his team had to be aware of a lot of uncertainty in obtaining these results due to the lack of clear information about the physical and chemical processes that occur at higher altitudes than the atmosphere.

In addition to eliminating these doubts, the scientists plan to further explore the link between ozone depletion and space launches in future research. They also hope that more studies will examine the impact of atmospheric changes on Earth’s climate.

But for now, even knowing all of the above, Drakakis and Kokinakis are still supporters of space exploration. “We are passionate about rockets and believe that the commercial sector has made amazing progress in this area,” Drikakis told me. “We are at the beginning of a wonderful journey,” he added.

He hopes their research and studies, like hers, will help the burgeoning aerospace industry “design solutions that improve rocket design and mitigate the effects of exhaust gases.” For Earth, he leaves all hope that innovation will come at rocket speed.

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