Scientists worry that growing numbers of rocket flights and the rise of space tourism could harm Earth's atmosphere and contribute to climate change.
When billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos soared into space this month aboard their companies' suborbital tourism vehicles, much of the world clapped in awe.
But for some scientists, these milestones represented something other than just a technical accomplishment. Achieved after years of delays and despite significant setbacks, the flights marked the potential beginning of a long-awaited era that might see rockets fly through the so-far rather pristine upper layers of the atmosphere far more often than they do today. In the case of SpaceShipTwo, the vehicle operated by Branson's Virgin Galactic, these flights are powered by a hybrid engine that burns rubber and leaves behind a cloud of soot.
"Hybrid engines can use different types of fuels, but they always generate a lot of soot," said Filippo Maggi, associate professor of aerospace engineering at Politecnico di Milano, Italy, who researches rocket propulsion technologies and was part of a team that several years ago published an extensive analysis of hybrid rocket engine emissions. "These engines work like a candle, and their burning process creates conditions that are favorable for soot generation."
Related: Air pollution from reentering megaconstellation satellites could cause ozone hole 2.0
According to Dallas Kasaboski, principal analyst at the space consultancy Northern Sky Research, a single Virgin Galactic suborbital space tourism flight, lasting about an hour and a half, can generate as much pollution as a 10-hour trans-Atlantic flight. Some scientists consider that disconcerting, in light of Virgin Galactic’s ambitions to fly paying tourists to the edge of space several times a day.
"Even if the suborbital tourism market is launching at a fraction of the number of launches compared to the rest of the [tourism] industry, each of their flights has a much higher contribution, and that could be a problem," Kasaboski told Space.com.
Virgin Galactic's rockets are, of course, not the only culprits. All rocket motors burning hydrocarbon fuels generate soot, Maggi said. Solid rocket engines, such as those used in the past in the boosters of NASA's space shuttle, burn metallic compounds and emit aluminum oxide particles together with hydrochloric acid, both of which have a damaging effect on the atmosphere.
The BE-3 engine that powers Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital vehicle, on the other hand, combines liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to create thrust. The BE-3 is not a big polluter compared to other rocket engines, emitting mainly water along with some minor combustion products, experts say.
Too little is known
For Karen Rosenlof, senior scientist at the Chemical Sciences Laboratory at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the biggest problem is that rockets pollute the higher layers of the atmosphere — the stratosphere, which starts at an altitude of about 6.2 miles (10 kilometers), and the mesosphere, which goes upward from 31 miles (50 km).
"You are emitting pollutants in places where you don't normally emit it," Rosenlof told Space.com. "We really need to understand. If we increase these things, what is the potential damage?"
So far, the impact of rocket launches on the atmosphere has been negligible, according to Martin Ross, an atmospheric scientist at the Aerospace Corporation who often works with Rosenlof. But that's simply because there have not been that many launches.
"The amount of fuel currently burned by the space industry is less than 1% of the fuel burned by aviation," Ross told Space.com. "So there has not been a lot of research, and that makes sense. But things are changing in a way that suggests that we should learn about this in more detail."
Northern Sky Research predicts that the number of space tourism flights will skyrocket over the next decade, from maybe 10 a year in the near future to 360 a year by 2030, Kasaboski said. This estimate is still far below the growth rate that space tourism companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin envision for themselves.
"Demand for suborbital tourism is extremely high," Kasaboski said. "These companies virtually have customers waiting in a line, and therefore they want to scale up. Ultimately, they would want to fly multiple times a day, just like short-haul aircraft do."
The rate of rocket launches delivering satellites into orbit is expected to grow as well. But Kasaboski sees bigger potential for growth in space tourism.
"It's like the difference between a cargo flight and a passenger flight," Kasaboski said. "There's a lot more passengers that are looking to fly."
The problem is, according to Ross, that the scientific community has no idea and not enough data to tell at what point rocket launches will start having a measurable effect on the planet's climate. At the same time, the stratosphere is already changing as the number of rocket launches sneakily grows.
"The impacts of these [rocket-generated] particles are not well understood even to an order of magnitude, the factor of 10," Ross said. "The uncertainty is large, and we need to narrow that down and predict how space might be impacting the atmosphere."
Space shuttle's ozone holes
So far, the only direct measurements of the effects of rocket launches on chemical processes in the atmosphere come from the space shuttle era. In the 1990s, as the world was coming together to salvage the damaged ozone layer, NASA, NOAA and the U.S. Air Force put together a campaign that looked at the effects of the emissions from the space shuttle's solid fuel boosters on ozone in the stratosphere.
"In the 1990s, there were significant concerns about chlorine from solid rocket motors," Ross said. "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 used NASA's WB 57 high-altitude aircraft to fly through the plumes generated by the space shuttle rockets in Florida. Reaching altitudes of up to 60,000 feet (19 km), they were able to measure the chemical reactions in the lower stratosphere just after the rockets' passage.
"One of the fundamental questions was how much chlorine is being made in these solid rocket motors and in what form," David Fahey, the director of the Chemical Sciences Laboratory at NOAA, who led the study, told Space.com. "We measured it several times and then analyzed the results. At that time, there were not enough space shuttle launches to make a difference globally, but locally one could deplete the ozone layer due to this diffuse plume [left behind by the rocket]."
The space shuttle retired 10 years ago, but rockets generating ozone-damaging substances continue launching humans and satellites to space today.
In fact, in 2018, in its latest Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion, which comes out every four years, the World Meteorological Organization included rockets as a potential future concern. The organization called for more research to be done as the number of launches is expected to increase.
Worse than geoengineering
Rosenlof's team studies the broader effects of human-made substances in the higher layers of the atmosphere using powerful NOAA supercomputers. The work is akin to predicting the proverbial butterfly effect, the influence of minuscule changes in the chemistry of the air tens of miles above Earth on climate and weather patterns on the ground. For her, black carbon, or soot, emitted by rockets burning hydrocarbon fuels, is of particular concern.
"The problem with soot is that it absorbs ultraviolet light, and that means that it could heat the stratosphere," Rosenlof said. "When you start heating the stratosphere, the layer above the troposphere [closest to the ground], you start changing the motion in the stratosphere. You are changing the energy transfer, and that could actually affect what is happening on the ground."
Rosenlof points out that many of the particles generated by some rockets have been of interest to scientists due to the possible effects they could have on the global climate in a different context — that of geoengineering, the deliberate tampering with the atmosphere with the aim of stopping or mitigating global warming.
Rosenlof recently co-authored a paper that used the same powerful NOAA supercomputers to model what the scientists call a climate intervention. The team was interested in the climate effects of dispersing sulfur dioxide particles, which are known to reflect light away from Earth, in combination with soot (which is also part of rocket emissions) in the lower stratosphere. Soot absorbs energy from sunlight and pushes the sulfur dioxide aerosol particles to a higher altitude by warming up the surrounding air. At that higher altitude, the sulfur dioxide can start its climate-cooling work. The experiment modeled what would happen when 1.1 million tons of sunlight-reflecting sulfur dioxide mixed with 11,000 tons of black carbon were released in the upper troposphere by aircraft over a 10-day period.
The study didn't find any significant negative effects on weather on Earth. Yet, those results do not dispel Rosenlof's concerns about the possible risks associated with the growing number of rocket launches.
Altering the jet stream
"Black carbon in the geoengineering experiment that we did isn't as high as the stuff from these rockets," she said. "The problem is that the higher you go, the longer something lasts. Neither of them is ideal, because either of them would produce heating in places where we don't have heating right now."
According to Maggi, the soot particles generated by hybrid rocket engines are extremely small and light-weight. In fact, when he and his colleagues tried to measure the soot output of hybrid rocket engines in a laboratory, they couldn't reliably do it with precision because of the particles' minuscule size.
"We were able to measure the particle output from solid rocket motors," Maggi said. "These are about a micron in size, and there [are] a lot of them. But because they are large, they fall to the ground more quickly. In hybrid rocket engines, we were not able to collect the soot from the plume because it's extremely fine, a few nanometres in size."
Maggi fears these particles could, in fact, stay in the stratosphere forever.
"They have the same size as the carbon emitted by aircrafts," Maggi said. "And we know that there is a layer of carbon in the atmosphere at the flight level of aircrafts which is staying there. It's very likely that particles coming from rocket motors will do the same."
The accumulation of these particles over years and decades is what worries the scientists. Just as the current climate crisis started relatively slowly as the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere grew, the pollution in the stratosphere may only start causing harm some years down the road.
Rosenlof added that in the long term, injecting pollutants into the stratosphere could alter the polar jet stream, change winter storm patterns or affect average rainfall.
"You might go from 25 inches [64 centimeters] a year to 20 inches [51 cm] a year in some places, which maybe doesn't sound like that big of a deal unless you are a farmer trying to grow your wheat right there," Rosenlof said. "Then a subtle change in rainfall can impact your crop yields."
Work to be done
For this reason, Fahey says, it is critical that scientific work starts now to evaluate the future risks.
"There is this fundamental gap where we just don't have the numbers, and that means that the science is limited because we have this lack of information," he said. "We feel it is part of our responsibility [at NOAA] to assess the impact of human activity on the stratosphere. Rockets are a principal and unique source [of stratospheric pollution], the launch frequencies are increasing and the effects are accumulating."
Fahey envisions a wider research program that would analyze the emissions and impacts of individual types of rocket engines and fuels on the stratosphere. The data could be used in Rosenlof's models to better predict the effects in accordance with the expected growth of the number of launches. Fahey, however, says that a political decision would have to come first to provide NOAA and its partners with funding that would enable them to take the high-altitude aircraft to the sky again and gather the data. The good news is, he added, that the U.S. Congress seems to be aware of the problem and things might soon start to move.
"We would like to see a national program run by NOAA or the Air Force that would develop a database with basic emission characteristics of modern propulsion systems based on observations," he said. "We could gather some data in ground tests but also in the same way that we did with the space shuttle — by flying through the plumes just after launch."
Follow Tereza Pultarova on Twitter @TerezaPultarova. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.