Climate Action

How many space launches does it take to have a serious climate impact?

The Long March-2F Y12 rocket, carrying the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft and three astronauts, takes off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center for China's first manned mission to build its space station, near Jiuquan, Gansu province, China June 17, 2021.   REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins - RC212O9KHZLQ

The Long March-2F Y12 rocket carrying the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft and three astronauts takes off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, China, June 17 2021. Image: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • As space launches proliferate, related climate concerns may grow.
  • The success of two recent voyages means private investment in spaceflight will likely swell.
  • Rocket exhaust leaves particles in the atmosphere that can affect temperatures.

A new satellite launch site is being planned for Unst, a windswept UK island that was once part of a ring of radar stations used to detect incoming V-2 rockets – the German “wonder weapons” that spawned a government-led space race more than a half-century ago.

Launches at the Unst facility, which will cater to commercial clients, should generate an estimated 764 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent every year. That's a negligible fraction of the country’s total annual emissions. But the site is just one of seven planned for the UK alone, as a second, largely profit-driven space race heats up.

Space launches haven’t raised much climate concern to date. That may change, as the private sector books an increasing number of flights for space tourists, and potentially starts ferrying miners and factory workers beyond Earth’s atmosphere (two successful commercial voyages to space this month both inspired would-be explorers and prompted some pundits to calculate their carbon footprint).

Alongside space tourism, the growing use of satellites will also likely ramp up launch activity; a record 1,283 satellites were launched last year, according to the UN, and by April of this year nearly 850 more had been sent into space.

In addition to coughing up not-inconsiderable amounts of CO2, rockets can spew exhaust that depletes the ozone layer through chemical reactions. And if the black carbon “soot” particles they leave in the atmosphere reach high enough concentrations, it could impact surface and atmospheric temperatures, according to a NASA assessment.

One study estimated that 1,000 space launches per year could create a layer of black carbon particles capable of causing the loss of 5% or more of Antarctic sea ice.

Image: World Economic Forum

As private commercial interest in space increases, a wider variety of governments are also likely to initiate launches. More than a dozen countries now have the ability to send objects into orbit, and related costs have generally declined since 2005.

Nations submitting information to the UN on their first satellites in 2019 included Bhutan and Kenya; Indonesia, Lithuania, and Egypt were among the other countries registering functional space objects that year.

China now has a space station where it can send additional astronauts and supplies, and the United Arab Emirates plans to follow its successful launch of a Mars orbiter with a satellite-manufacturing complex and a settlement on the Red Planet by 2117.

Not long before the private-sector launches this month stirred excitement about new possibilities for spaceflight, an extreme heatwave linked to climate change had blanketed the region from Texas north to Canada – killing hundreds of people, cooking millions of sea creatures, and hinting that an environmental catastrophe may be closer at hand than anticipated.

Some argue greater access to space means we could send the most climate-unfriendly aspects of the global economy there. Others say we must find better ways to deal with the problem right here on Earth.

A number of efforts are underway to blunt the climate impact of rockets – similar to the anticipated shift among aviation companies to more sustainable fuels.

A company in Europe is working on carbon-neutral rockets that run on hydrogen produced from biomass, for example, and another says it's been developing a rocket that doesn't emit black carbon.

Image: World Economic Forum

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Billionaire private investment is good for the space industry, whether we like it or not – according to this analysis wealthy entrepreneurs have taken advantage of a lack of government interest in funding exploration, in the process making space more accessible to everyone. (LSE)
  • It takes multiple launches to complete a space station – the 22.5-tonne core module for China’s new Tiangong station was launched in April, and more launches will add its laboratories in the coming years, according to this report. (The Conversation)
  • TV news coverage of the recent entrepreneur-driven voyages to space has generally lacked rigour, according to this analysis, though at least one anchor did ask whether it was ethical to burn rocket fuel on private space flight during a climate crisis. (Columbia Journalism Review)
  • The real excitement about space tourism, according to this analysis, will come when the companies behind it are willing to assist significantly with scientific research and open their doors to more people who aren’t super rich. (The Conversation)
  • Catching up in space isn’t a moon shot – according to this analysis, rapid and reliable access to space is now an economic and national-security imperative, and Australia risks falling behind. (Lowy Institute)
  • Another potential hazard of launching things to space: they can come back down in unnerving ways. This analysis argues that countries with space programmes need to develop legally-binding instruments on rocket re-entries. (Observer Research Foundation)
  • Some of the satellites being launched will provide considerable environmental benefits, according to this piece, by monitoring climate change and assessing the extent to which human activities are sustainable. (WMO)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Space, Climate Change, and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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