We Are Aiming For The Stars, But At What Cost For Our Earth?

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With the advent of commercial flights into Space, we are defining a new way to travel around the globe and beyond. However, few have stopped to think about how these advancements impact climate change.

News of wildfires destroying the Earth’s green lungs has now reached every country worldwide. The World Resources Institute estimates that 12 million acres of forest and land burned in 2020 alone, increasing by 12% compared to 2019. Although this year’s statistics are not yet out, growing temperatures around the globe translated into record-breaking devastation of the environment, projecting 2021 into the most destructive year in recorded history.

One of the key points to minimise the effects of global warming is to reduce our carbon footprint, the quantities of greenhouse gases produced by human activities. From travelling to our eating habits, every step in the production, use, and end-of-life of what we consume emits pollutants. Carbon dioxide, methane, fluorinated gasses, and other chemicals enter the atmosphere, trapping the heat and ultimately leading to an increase in temperatures globally. While governments encourage their citizens to decrease their carbon footprint by leading a more mindful lifestyle, highly polluting, commercial space flights are becoming the new frontier in travelling.

After decades of advancement in space flights, billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson are developing their own space. The privatisation of space flights in the US stems from a lack of funding to the government-owned space programmes in the 1970s. The problem of inadequate backing from the government culminated in the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984. With new legislation, private companies were not only encouraged to fund governmental projects but to venture into private enterprises at the same time. However, most of the economic support towards commercial space flights comes from the last two decades. Since the 2000s, privatised companies have fed billions of dollars into space, rapidly deploying their own spaceflight corporations.

While we can argue that private enterprises increased the efforts towards advancing space technologies and interplanetary travels, we need to weigh the ecological impact they have on Earth. Estimates show that one trip to the upper layers of the atmosphere emits 4 to 10 times more nitrous oxide than Drax, the biggest thermal plant in the UK. This number increases to 50 to 100 if compared to a long-haul plane flight.

To reduce the pollution from using fossil fuels, new spaceplanes burn hybrid propellants made of liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen, and nitrous oxide. Even though there has been a shift towards greener resources, these combustibles still release carbon dioxide, soot, water vapour, and nitrogen oxides, which get trapped in the atmosphere. Two-thirds of the exhausts are released into the stratosphere and mesosphere, where they linger for two to three years. The extremely high temperatures of launch and re-entry convert nitrogen in the atmosphere into reactive nitrogen oxides, which ultimately react with the chemicals from the breakdown of water vapour. These, in exchange, convert ozone into oxygen and destroy the ozone layer that protects the Earth’s crust from UV rays from the Sun. Water vapour increases the production of stratospheric clouds that supply a surface for these reactions to occur.

Prices for tickets into a spaceflight oscillate between $125,000 and $55 million depending on the company, duration and whether the guests can board the International Space Station. Only moneyed people will experience space in the future. Given the financial supply put into spaceflight, companies should aim at fuelling projects that target greener options. Although the way they spend their wealth cannot be syndicated, how will the privilege of a few affect the rest of the world?

SpaceX made steps towards more ecological options. The company can now reuse their rockets in multiple launches, retrieving different stages from used rockets, which normally go to waste after one use. While these reduce the costs for the enterprise, they guarantee a way to recycle the parts of the rocket. This decreases the pollution to produce their materials and avoids their dispersion in the environment. Similarly, there have been efforts to promote greener fuels and extraction of their by-products by asking the scientists for insights. At the beginning of 2021, SpaceX committed to funding the best carbon dioxide sequestration technologies. This would reduce the emissions from spaceflights and find a solution for the always increasing greenhouse effect.

Although companies have taken measures to minimise the effects of spaceflights on Earth, there is still a long way to go. It is of the utmost importance that governments understand the ecological impact of spaceflights on Earth before they are allowed more often. The Earth’s atmosphere is put at risk by daily human activities, so regulating spaceflights should go hand-in-hand with the international effort to reduce our carbon footprint. As humans, we want to aim for the stars, but we need to keep our feet on the ground, making our own planet thrive before it is too late.

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2nd Year Neuroscience student. Interested in Clinical and Computational Neuroscience. I enjoy writing articles about STEM topics.

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