Yes, space tourism destroys the ozone layer, study shows

The richest among us love the latest boom in space tourism, and industry leaders like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin love all the statistics about how little carbon dioxide their flights emit into the atmosphere. However, these fast flights into space are not entirely climate neutral.

Scientists suspect that spaceflight may be contributing to climate change, even if they don’t use traditional CO2-emitting jet fuel. Other particles produced by rockets could cause permanent damage to the ozone layer, according to a new study from University College London, the University of Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Study published in the journal Future of the Earth, calls for urgent mitigation measures before the space tourism industry really takes off. “What we really need now is discussion among experts on the best strategy for regulating this fast-growing industry,” said co-author Dr. Eloise Marais.

About that soot… This research team has found that launching a rocket is actually far worse for the planet than your normal plane ride. This is because the launches emit “black carbon” particles, also known as soot. The effect of black carbon on climate warming is 460–1500 times stronger than that of CO2 per unit mass.

While the damage caused by rocket-produced black carbon has yet to greatly affect the planet’s ozone depletion, researchers have found that rising trends indicate that the upper stratospheric ozone layer in the Arctic will be damaged sooner rather than later. We’re talking about the release of black carbon directly into the upper atmosphere.

The research team created models to predict how quickly the space tourism industry could pose a real risk to the ozone layer. The amount of warming due to soot will more than double in the next three years if left unchecked, thanks in part to the use of SpaceX kerosene and Virgin Galactic hybrid synthetic rubbers.

Are taxes enough? — The ozone layer is no longer the subject of a climate change debate as it once was, thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol banning substances that deplete atmospheric ozone. The upper stratosphere has shown significant recovery since the Montreal Protocol – and that’s where these rockets leave their soot.

Several lawmakers have tried to introduce a “space tax” that would charge passengers a surcharge on their rocket tickets. However, a 10 percent tax will not remove all this soot from the atmosphere. The researchers are calling for more research into the impact of by-products of new fuels such as liquid methane and biofuels.

“The conversation about regulating the impact of the space launch industry on the environment needs to start now so that we can minimize harm to the stratospheric ozone layer and climate,” said co-author Dr. Robert Ryan.

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