Will Soot Rain on Sir Richard’s Parade?

Oh boy, this is not good…

Just as Richard Branson and company were dedicating a spaceport in New Mexico, there came news that the space tourism flights they plan could send massive amounts of soot into the upper atmosphere. Nature News reports:

Climate change caused by black carbon, also known as soot, emitted during a decade of commercial space flight would be comparable to that from current global aviation, researchers estimate.

The findings, reported in a paper in press in Geophysical Research Letters, suggest that emissions from 1,000 private rocket launches a year would persist high in the stratosphere, potentially altering global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone. The simulations show that the changes to Earth’s climate could increase polar surface temperatures by 1 °C, and reduce polar sea ice by 5–15%.

Holy flerking snit!

The environmental impact of Sir Richard’s space tourism plans has been a serious point of contention. Virgin Galactic has insisted that SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid engine — which burns rubber and nitrous oxide — will be environmentally friendly, releasing fewer emissions per person than a round trip business class passenger on a Virgin Atlantic 747 flight.

These claims have been impossible to judge because Virgin Galactic has released absolutely no figures to back any of them up. It’s unclear how they calculate emissions from a business class round-trip or from SpaceShipTwo, what sorts of emissions are being released, or why a two-hour trip by 8-people a tiny space plane to an altitude of 70 miles is really comparable to a 16-hour flight by a fully loaded jumbo jet at 35,000 feet. There’s also the question of what the environmental cost of producing SpaceShipTwo’s fuels compared with jet fuel.

The new study raises the question of not only how much emissions will be released but where they will end up, which is the upper atmosphere where no planes travel. That is a subject that Virgin Galactic officials have studiously avoided discussing, except to promote the ability of the spaceship to study the upper atmosphere by carrying scientific instruments aloft.

During the runway dedication on Friday in New Mexico, Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn muddied the waters a bit by telling the press that SpaceShipTwo could eventually burn nylon instead of rubber. It’s not entirely clear how much friendlier that would be to the environment. Nor is it clear how or when a nylon propulsion system might be implemented or phased in.

This is getting a bit ridiculous. If Virgin Galactic is going to make claims of eco-cleanliness, it should back them up with some actual numbers. These are serious concerned raised by scientists in a legitimate journal. The company needs to address the matter more substantively than it has to date.