Unintended Consequences: The Environmental Impact of the New Space Race

The high-altitude chase began on February 17, 2023, over Cape Canaveral during the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch. Thomas Parent, a NASA research pilot, was flying a WB-57 jet and was left mesmerized as he watched the rocket ascend past the right wing. For about an hour, Mr. Parent pursued the rocket’s plume while Tony Casey, the sensor equipment operator aboard the jet, monitored its 17 scientific instruments. The goal of the researchers was to use the data collected to illustrate they could catch a rocket’s plume and eventually characterize the environmental effects of a space launch.

The number of rocket launches has significantly increased in recent years as both commercial companies, particularly SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, and government agencies have sent thousands of satellites into low-Earth orbit. This trend is expected to continue with forecasts of satellites possibly reaching one million, leading to a greater number of space launches and higher emissions.

SpaceX declined to comment on pollution from rockets and satellites. Representative for Amazon and Eutelsat OneWeb, two companies working toward satellite mega-constellations, stated that they are committed to sustainable operations. However, scientists are concerned about the impact of increased launches scattering more pollutants in pristine layers of Earth’s atmosphere. Current global regulators do not have pollution-related rules for space launches, and this worries experts about understanding the consequences of rocket and spacecraft pollution when it may be too late.

The high altitude chase was a thrilling experience for Thomas Parent who flew a WB-57 jet and chased the space rocket Falcon 9 while the sensor equipment operator aboard the jet monitored its scientific instruments. The number of rocket launches has spiked, led by commercial companies and government agencies, and the space industry’s rapid growth raises concerns for potential environmental consequences, with the potential for up to thousands of satellites orbiting Earth. Studies show that rockets and spacecraft contribute to metal emissions in the atmosphere and scientists fear space launches may yield escalating levels of emissions. There are concerns that pollution from rockets and spacecraft may affect the atmosphere, and the consequences are not yet fully understood. The spiking numbers of space launches are alarming to scientists and the space industry’s potential impact on the environment needs to be further assessed. Environmental consequences must be considered as the space industry continues to develop and expand.

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