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Billionaire Space Race Could Add Fuel To Global Climate Crisis

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The race to ace in space among billionaires has begun and will only get fiercer going forward. The recent spaceflights from Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin have set the perfect stage for a booming space tourism sector. Soon, Elon Musk's SpaceX will embrace the skies with its first all-civilian spaceflight. The growing trend has attracted many space tourists, and the number is set to grow heavily as the industry advances.

 

Space Race

Many potential buyers have already placed their bids for a seat on Blue Origin's next spaceflight. Back in 2018, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa paid SpaceX an undisclosed sum for a future trip that will ferry his handpicked crew around the moon and back. These privately-funded companies want to make space tourism more common, but at what cost?

Carbon Dioxide Emission Is Concerning
 

Carbon Dioxide Emission Is Concerning

The recent space adventures have attracted a lot of flak with many people calling out billionaires for taking trips to space rather than using their resources to fight the climate change crisis. Rockets burn massive amounts of fuel to exit Earth's atmosphere, which is a huge price to pay for these billionaires to experience just a few minutes of weightlessness.

Rockets eat up a heavy amount of propellants to take off. SpaceX's Falcon 999 rocket uses kerosene, while NASA's new Space Launch System burns up liquid hydrogen. These fuels emit several substances into the atmosphere, including CO2, water, chlorine, and other chemicals. While the carbon emissions from rockets are less when compared to the aviation industry, they are increasing at 5.6% every year.

The emissions released by these launches are still worrying. One rocket launch can produce around 200-300 tons of carbon dioxide into the upper atmosphere where it can stay for years, The Guardian reports. "For one long-haul plane flight it's one to three tons of carbon dioxide [per passenger]," Eloise Marais, an associate professor of physical geography at University College London, told The Guardian.

At Par With Aviation Industry?

At Par With Aviation Industry?

Besides burning up high amounts of fuel, rockets release harmful gases that eventually end up harming the ozone layer, which is already depleting. Thankfully, rocket launches are still low in number and haven't made it to the polluter list on a global scale. But how long before it gets there is the bigger question?

While around 100,000 planes fill up to the skies daily, only 114 rockets were launched in an attempt to reach orbit in 2020, according to NASA. But with more competition in the space tourism sector, space launch prices are bound to go down. And, it's only a matter of time until the industry hits its stride. It's more troubling given the regulatory system these private space companies work within.

"We have no regulations currently around rocket emissions," Marais told The Guardian. "The time to act is now - while the billionaires are still buying their tickets."

Need For Carbon Emission Reduction Intensifying

Need For Carbon Emission Reduction Intensifying

Though there are no regulations on rocket emissions, new space pioneers have promised to develop launchers that would make escaping Earth's gravity less damaging to the environment.

Ariane Group, Europe's biggest launch company is developing a rocket that will be carbon-neutral by running on methane produced from biomass. Called Ariane Next, the heavy-launcher project aims to takeoff in 2030. SpaceX also has a similar methane-powered Raptor engine that is currently used for the Starship vehicle.

Orbex, a British rocket company uses bio-propane and claims it can cut CO2 emissions by 90% when compared to traditional launch fuel. Besides cutting CO2, Orbex's Prime rocket will completely avoid black carbon, which is a "much bigger climate problem," said Chris Larmour, chief executive of Orbex.

NASA recently collaborated with DLA ATRA to publish a study that investigates alternative fuels for launches. The study suggests that the use of jet fuels made from stable resources can help in cutting down ice crystal contrails at high altitudes by 50-70%, eventually helping reduce the grave impacts of aviation on the environment.

A similar solution for space rockets and proper regulations might pave the way for space tourism and a clean environment to co-exist. But whether the billionaire space race ever witnesses the use of renewable resources for launches remains to be seen.

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