This decade marked the beginning of a new era where a trip to space is available to any billionaire willing to pay for such a joyride. On the other hand, society has been concerned about the ever-growing dangers of climate change and has been looking for ways to slow down global warming or, at least, mitigate its consequences. These two developments — the space tech progress and zero-carbon emission goals — obviously do not align. But perhaps there is a way to explore space without endangering our home planet?
Prince William’s attack on space tourism
Space industry giants like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson are actively commercializing space travel, but it looks like they pay little attention to the environmental consequences of their endeavours. The public has growing concerns about the effect of rocket launches — whether for space tourism or for placing satellites in orbits. Prince William voiced his objections in the interview with BBC, stating that space industry leaders do not think of their businesses’ cost for our planet. He went even further, stating that we should be looking for ways to repair our planet, not searching for the “next place to go and live.” The statement is in line with the UK’s zero-carbon emission goals, and many people worldwide share the same belief.
Space tourism can contribute to science
Despite growing concerns, space industry development, along with space tourism flights, does have a positive impact on our society. Unlike the political, purely governmental space race of the past century, the 21st century has seen the emergence of a private space sector not limited by governmental funds. This financial and political freedom results in innovation, searching for the most cost-effective ways to introduce new technologies. Simply put, private companies do not have to account for the taxpayers’ money (which they do not use), so they are truly free to explore any tech they find viable. As a result, the sky is the limit for the new generation of scientists. Eventually, this could lead to ground-breaking discoveries, including actionable suggestions on fighting climate change.
Space tourism affects the ecology
While we still wait for the ground-breaking scientific discoveries to happen, it is impossible to ignore the problems already at hand. Today’s scientists are concerned about growing pollution levels and ozone layer destruction. Right now, the number of annual rocket launches is minimal but may soon reach 1,000 lift-offs a year. When this happens, 600 tons of soot and carbon will be added to our atmosphere every year, eventually increasing the average temperature in the Antarctic by 1°C. Most importantly, stratosphere pollution has not been properly studied yet because today’s aircraft flies three times lower than rockets. One thing that’s already been estimated is that a thousand annual rocket launches will cause more pollution than all operational aircraft today.
We need to invest in sustainable solutions and innovations
The concerned scientists cannot stop space tourism or space industry development. Even today, it’s clear that this train is not coming off its track. The number of space flights will rise, as well as the demand for suborbital tourism and satellite launches. Right now, the only way to mitigate space industry consequences is to invest in ecological solutions to make space exploration more sustainable.
Several companies are already working in this direction. British Skyrora is working on a space tug for orbital debris removal and has already developed a green Ecosene fuel obtained from plastic waste. Besides, it is not the only company searching for ways to clean up space junk — Astroscale is working in the same direction. Even more space companies, including such established launch operators as SpaceX and Rocket Lab, are investing in reusable launch systems to mitigate the consequences of rocket launches. So, there is hope that more space startups will make safe, sustainable space exploration their top priority.
As space startups are working to make their tech more sustainable, the public and investors should do the same. Space industry development cannot be stopped at this point, so we need to focus on sustainability and support companies that try to solve climate change problems here, on Earth.