8 November 2010

Could Rockets Cause Global Warming?

Posted by Ryan

New research suggests that soot from commercial rocket launches could have a surprisingly large effect on global climate.

A few weeks ago, on the same day as the runway dedication at New Mexico’s “Spaceport America“, the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters published a paper suggesting that soot from commercial rocket launches could cause significant climate change. Based on the results of climate modeling, the authors found that 1000 launches per year would have the same influence as all of the subsonic air traffic in the world combined. Talk about a wet blanket, eh? The Space Review has a very good article about the research and some of the responses from the private spaceflight community, so I’ll send you over there rather than trying to duplicate it.

One thing that stood out to me about the research is that it assumes 1000 flights per year. That seems like a really high number. I’m sure space entrepreneurs would love to have numbers like that, but I think it’s going to be a long time before we see launches that often! There are lots of other assumptions that go into the results as well, ranging from the type of fuel to where the launches are occurring, to whether the rocket is launched from a plane or from the ground.

Still, despite all the assumptions, it’s very interesting that the soot from rocket launches could have such a large effect. I think it bodes well that the potential for this sort of effect is being identified now so that rocket companies can look more closely into the problem. Maybe they’ll find that certain engines or fuel types are much “cleaner” and those can become the standard from the beginning. It’s much easier to make changes now that it would be to modify a fleet of rockets five or ten years down the road.