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The Climate Impact of Space Tourism

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I have often wondered about the climate impact of space tourism. Why does it matter even more now? According to a press release just released by Allied Market Research, the global space tourism industry generated $598.4 million in 2021, and is anticipated to generate $12.6 billion by 2031, witnessing a CAGR of 36.4 percent from 2022 to 2031. Expect just a little more carbon to be falling on your heads in the coming years.

I am by no means an expert on the climate impact of space tourism but came across an article from Inside Climate News from June of last year that sums up the issue quite nicely. The article mentioned a couple of insightful studies.

“The burgeoning space tourism industry could soon fuel significant global warming while also depleting the protective ozone layer that is crucial for sustaining life on Earth, a new study concludes,” the article says, citing a report published in Earth’s Future.

Soot from the combustion of burning rocket fuel remains in the stratosphere for up to four years, absorbing heat and helping to warm the planet. Black carbon emitted in the stratosphere is nearly 500 times worse for the climate than similar emissions on or near the surface of the earth.

“A big ramp up in the number of space launches, which is hoped for by the space tourism industry, poses a risk to the climate by adding black carbon particles to the upper atmosphere and as a result, we should think very carefully about regulating this industry before it gets out of hand,” Robert Ryan, a researcher at University College London and the lead author of the study in Earth’s Future said.

Potential for Tremendous Impact

After just three years of more than once-a-day rocket launches, space tourism would account for 6 percent of warming due to black carbon emissions despite contributing just 0.02 percent of global black carbon emissions.

The study in Earth’s Future also found that rockets deplete the Earth’s atmospheric ozone layer, which protects the planet from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Rockets that burn solid, chlorine-based fuels harm ozone by releasing chlorine, which destroys ozone, directly into the stratosphere. Chlorine-containing chemicals, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), were banned under the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to protect atmospheric ozone that was adopted in 1987. Solid fuel rockets were not part of the ban.

Regardless of the fuel type used, all rockets contributed to additional ozone depletion through the emissions of nitrogen oxides upon re-entry into the stratosphere, the article said.

According to Inside Climate News, “Another study projected that increased emissions from space tourism would also disrupt global atmospheric circulation, slowing the transport of air from the tropics to the poles in the upper atmosphere. This decrease in circulation would result in a slight reduction of atmospheric ozone concentrations in the northern hemisphere.”

The next time you see a billionaire sending up a rocket with civilians on board for a joy ride, consider the real impact of that journey.

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