In one section of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a pair of outspoken researchers reveal how warp drives – the series’ ubiquitous propulsion system used to get travelers around space – can be incredibly environmentally damaging. From then on, the characters are careful to limit the damage to their space travel.
Can a similar scenario now take place in the real universe, minus the motors that are faster than light? Atmospheric scientist Christopher Maloney thinks so. In a new study, he and his colleagues modeled how black coal scraped by rocket launches around the world is likely to gradually heat up parts of the intermediate atmosphere and deplete the ozone layer. The published their results on June 1 in Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.
“There’s a lot of momentum right now when it comes to rocket launches and satellite constellations going up, so it’s important to start researching this to study what effects we could potentially see,” said Maloney, who is based at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). ) Chemical Sciences Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.
Maloney and his colleagues’ models begin with typical launchers, where rockets blow a spray of small particles called aerosols out of their engine nozzles. The most dangerous exhaust component is black carbon, or soot. Rockets emit lots of these microscopic particles into the stratosphere, especially between 15 and 40 kilometers above the ground, above where aircraft fly. Modern jet engines also drive out black coal, but in much smaller quantities. Falling decommissioned satellites also emit aerosols, as they burn up in the stratosphere. Because these particles remain in the stratosphere for about four years, they can accumulate, especially in areas where space travel is concentrated.
Maloney and his team used a high-resolution climate model to predict the effects that this pollution will have on the atmosphere, and studied how aerosols of different sizes could heat or cool areas in space at different latitudes, longitudes and heights. They found that within two decades, temperatures in parts of the stratosphere could rise by as much as 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, and that the ozone layer could be thinned slightly in the northern hemisphere. They generally conclude that more rockets mean more warming and increased ozone loss, which can be a problem, especially since humans, wildlife and crops need the ozone layer to protect them from ultraviolet radiation.
According to their report, rocket launches collectively expel about 1 gigagram, or 1,000 tons, of black coal in the stratosphere each year. Within two decades, it could easily increase to 10 gigabytes or more, thanks to the growing number of rocket launches. Researchers are considering several scenarios for black carbon emissions, including levels reaching 30 and 100 gigabytes, which, although extreme, could happen in a few more decades if rocket engine technologies and trends do not change much. They focus their analysis on commonly used kerosene-burning rocket engines, such as the first-stage boosters of SpaceX Falcon, Rocket Lab Electron and Russian Soyuz rockets.
With the global launch speed increasing by approx 8 percent per year, they estimate that as many as 1,000 hydrocarbon-burning rockets will explode each year until the 2040s. This is partly due to reduced launch costs and the growth of the commercial space industry, as well as the fact that the rockets needed to launch are growing. satellite networks such as SpaceX’s Starlink, Amazon’s Project Kuiper and OneWeb. Suborbital space travel, type Blue Origins and Virgin Galactic‘s, penetrate the stratosphere as well.
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