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.

  • Dave D.

    Whoever didn’t see this coming has had their head buried in the sand for too long. The same groups that have been pushing to ban everything from car travel to air travel have only been ignoring space travel because of its infrequent use (by their standards) but with more flights possible every day, they’re going to gain their attention and wrath.

  • Of course, you could always use a green space vehicle that uses hydrogen and oxygen the way NASA does. But putting excess greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that will melt the ice caps and eventually put the east coast of the US underwater– is not a good idea!

  • @Marcel,

    The problems with using hydrogen is that it 1) needs to be kept VERY cold, 2) tends to leak out no matter what 3) likes to explode 4) is very low density. These things add up to it being much more expensive than other fuels such as jet fuel or the solid rubber (or nylon) core of the hybrid motors on SS2.

    Kind of like the difference between gasoline vapor, and the tires on your car.

    Oh, BTW: the Shuttle put out staggering amounts of nasty pollutants, as does the wasteful facility they launch from:


    VG’s space transportation system (and Spaceport America) is WAY cleaner by comparison.

    As far as the greenhouse gas issue: if you use biofuels, then there’s no net change in greenhouse gases. All the carbon emitted by burning biofuels came out of the atmosphere to begin with! Sir Richard intends to switch to biofuels ASAP.

    Bottom line: the choice to use hydrocarbon fuel makes the system profitable NOW, instead of ten years down the road. And the minute that hydrogen fuel becomes profitable, due to tech developments or anti-pollution laws, everyone will switch. It’s a more energetic fuel, and a cleaner one – the exhaust is water vapor.

    Although, we have no clear idea of the effect of large amounts of water vapor on the upper atmosphere, either.

    On the whole, given the risks and benefits, I think VG is making the right decision to use hydrocarbon fuels.

  • amalie

    This is not a personal or a political issue, no one is interested in the attributes of specific lobby groups, I have even heard such entities described as “Eco-nazi’s”. The fact is that green aerospace is a fundamental and leading criteria. Some studies have also been made for the impact of rocket launch on the upper atmosphere. These studies are essential ones, they also comprise for issues of concern to all informed public and private space development communities, as well as the general public. It is not a matter of concealment or exposure, if studies demonstrate that space tourism poses a serious environmental threat, then it is most likely that the program will be phased out by parties involved in favor of other types of strategic space development objectives .