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How polluting is space tourism?

“Who would like to go from one city to another in less than 20 minutes? Who would like to go to the Moon? Who would like to spend their next vacation in a hotel in space?” asks Nancy Vermeulen, pilot instructor, during the Congress International Space and Underwater Tourism, an event which this week brought together the main space and international agencies at the Ecole des Roches. For three days, from Wednesday September 22 to Friday September 24, a dozen astronauts and scientists presented the challenges that space tourism will face in the next ten years, in front of several hundred people, journalists or space enthusiasts.

Since 4 space tourists spent three days in space on September 15 for the first orbital mission in history without any astronauts on board, the era of space tourism seems to have begun. Whether it’s SpaceX (Elon Musk’s company), Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson) or Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos), American companies are scheduling tourist flights in series and selling hundreds of tickets to the stars to billionaires. But at what ecological cost? If the level of pollution from these activities still remains marginal, space tourism could intensify and become a real threat to the environment. “With the Covid-19 pandemic, reflection on the environmental impact of space tourism has imposed itself in the public debate, becoming very visible”, explains Arnaud Saint-Martin, sociologist at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and specialist in astronomy.

4.5 tonnes of CO2 per passenger

For the time being, the number of rocket flights is low – 114 orbital launch attempts took place worldwide in 2020 according to NASA, compared to 100,000 daily flights by the airline industry – but the Rocket emissions are emitted into the upper atmosphere, and stay there for two to three years. Even “something as innocuous as water can have an impact” in the upper sphere, explained Eloise Marais, associate professor of physical geography at University College London in The Guardian. Moreover, according to the specialist firm Northern Sky Research (NSR), a single Virgin Galactic suborbital flight of an hour and a half could generate as much pollution as a transatlantic flight of 10 hours.

Another comparison, in an opinion piece published in September 2020 published in The Conversation, three French researchers estimated that a full flight of the Falcon 9 rocket, from the SpaceX company, to the international space station would emit “1,150 tonnes of CO2”, or the equivalent of 638 years of emissions from an average car traveling 15,000 km per year. As for SpaceShip Two, a prototype suborbital space plane created by Virgin Galactic, the CO2 emission of a complete flight would be around 27.2 tonnes according to the SpaceShip Two environmental assessment report. “At 6 passengers per flight, that’s 4.5 tonnes of CO2 per passenger. This is equivalent to driving around the Earth, alone in an average car”, note the three French researchers.

In addition to CO2, SpaceShip Two releases soot, polluting aggregates of chemical compounds, as it passes through the stratosphere. Based on a 2010 study, the three French scientists estimated that 1,000 suborbital flights per year would produce around 600 tonnes of soot which, remaining in suspension in the stratosphere for around 10 years, between 30 and 50 kilometers in altitude contribute to modifying the climate on the scale of the entire planet. “The soot released by these engines could be very problematic and serious for the environment”. emphasizes Arnaud Saint-Martin. And to add: “But it is hypothetical. It would have to be developed on an industrial scale for it to be really problematic for the environment”.

Obstacles to the development of space tourism

“We have to keep the scales in mind”, abounds for his part Paul Wohrer, research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research specializing in the subjects of security, innovation and high space technologies, interviewed by Challenges. For him, if there are real issues related to spaceflight such as the gases released in all layers of the atmosphere or the fuels used, the space industry is still very marginal and nascent. “It would take 1,000 rocket flights per day to have the same impact as air traffic has today on the climate, whereas the latter today represents around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions”, affirms- he. Can the space industry experience such a boom that it becomes truly problematic for the environment? “I’m not sure that’s realistic,” he says.

For Arnaud Saint-Martin, the development prospects announced by space companies are only “advertising effects”. “Companies have every interest in saying that it will develop and suggest that thefts will grow exponentially, but nothing is less certain,” he says. Technical, security and economic obstacles could slow down the development of the space industry, he said. “For the sector to grow massively, it would take a large fleet of reliable spacecraft and very talented pilots because the space industry is extremely dangerous and risky.” So far, 23 astronauts have been killed during training or during of space flights.

Greener alternatives

Moreover, if space tourism were to develop, “regulations will evolve with it”, estimates for his part Carlos Diez de la Lastra, director general of the Roches Marbella school, where the International Congress of space and underwater tourism. According to him, to reduce the environmental cost of space tourism, it is urgent to put pressure on American companies to develop greener technologies and less polluting fuels than those currently used, hydrogen or oxygen. liquid for example. “There is an urgent need for international agreements to force American companies to worry about their carbon footprint”.

He also reminds us that to feel a sense of gravity and get out of the atmosphere, greener alternatives exist. The Spanish company Zero2Infinity has notably developed helium flights at an altitude of 40 km from the ground, which makes it possible to observe the curvature of the Earth and space, but without emitting greenhouse gases. “Other companies are exploring similar concepts,” rejoices Carlos Diez de la Lastra, who hopes to see these alternatives develop. “The type of flight developed by Zero2Infinity does not pollute at all. If the space industry were to develop, these enterprises should be supported and sustainable space tourism should be encouraged.”

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