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Earth Space Transportation Science

Calculating Environmental Damage From Space Tourism Rockets 83

MithrandirAgain writes "A new study from several scientists at the Aerospace Corporation claims spaceships that rely on rubber-based fuel could help cause climate change. The fuel apparently expels a black carbon soot into the stratosphere when burned with nitrous oxide, which could be contributing to global climate changes, like shrinking the icecaps. However, the authors are careful about their work being an end-all study and are 'inviting others to take a look.' Virgin Galactic, whose SpaceShipTwo just made its first solo flight (and uses the type of fuel discussed in the study), is listening to the scientists' concerns. CEO George Whitesides said, 'I think we and others in the industry welcome the opportunity to talk about all of these issues.' SpaceShipTwo does use a hybrid engine 'because of its significantly lower environmental impact than other designs,' and Whitesides stresses, 'I think as we look at this more, we'll find the impact will be far smaller than that set out in the paper. In any case, I welcome the conversation.'"
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Calculating Environmental Damage From Space Tourism Rockets

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  • by Arthur Grumbine ( 1086397 ) on Saturday October 30, 2010 @10:44AM (#34072712) Journal

    However, the authors are careful about their work being an end-all study and are 'inviting others to take a look.'

    A refreshing attitude ... that's how science is supposed to work.

    While I agree that researchers should encourage others to perform independent studies, I find the approach of this group to be disingenuous at best. I find this comment (in the comments to the Wired article) to be particularly insightful:

    This is close to corporate blackmail, and is symptomatic of the way climate science is abused to generate alarmist headlines. They take three flights every day for 40 years, and no doubt the assumptions about the amount of soot particles is similarly “generous,” plug in absolute worst-case numbers until they get an alarming result, and PROFIT$$$.

    The profit for them is to generate alarming headlines. You can’t afford to not pour more money into my field or the WORLD WILL END!! (please be sure to spell my name right when you mention my research) And if you are Richard Branson, we will give your company a sooty black eye unless you fund more of our research. C’mon, rich man, pay up!

    There is certainly room for sober investigation, and as environmentally conscious as Branson is, he probably would have okayed a chase plane sampling the exhaust trail. Certainly all the atmospheric science models could use vastly more data to move beyond the wild guess stage. The constant claims of impending disaster from overstated claims, though, will backfire.

  • by RogueWarrior65 ( 678876 ) on Saturday October 30, 2010 @11:10AM (#34072850)

    IMHO, environmental extremism is nothing more that a reconstituted Luddite movement. This is a perfect example. It's as though they think there will suddenly be thousands of space flights every single day and more on the holidays.

  • by damburger ( 981828 ) on Saturday October 30, 2010 @01:13PM (#34073774)

    This offends your worldview so you dismiss it.

    For a better analysis, lets review the story so far:

    1. A group of highly qualified academics publish research showing that hybrid rocket engines *may* have a polluting effect far out of proportion to the emissions they have on paper. The researchers are careful to stress the word *may*

    2. They find another expert in the field who says "This is interesting, but not a definitive conclusion" i.e. agrees with the assessment of the original team.

    3. Spokespeople for corporations who want to make profits from the use of hybrid rockets say its all bullshit, despite these spokespeople having no real qualifications.

    Then you come along with some volcano analogy, despite the fact the entire study is based on the *high altitude* generation of soot particles and I haven't seen any flying volcanos recently.

    When science says things you don't like, and you decide to dismiss the academic structures on which science is based just because you don't like the new (possible) reality, that is a bit of a dick move.

    Here is the real bitch though; nobody is going anywhere significant in N20/rubber hybrid rockets. They are good for quick-and-easy sub-orbital rides because they are safe and simple to build, but to get into orbit you need more powerful fuels which likely do not have the soot problem - so if space tourism does take off and get some non-pathetic technology, they will have moved on from producing soot-rich exhausts anyhow.

  • by ScrewMaster ( 602015 ) * on Saturday October 30, 2010 @01:37PM (#34073930)

    Then you come along with some volcano analogy, despite the fact the entire study is based on the *high altitude* generation of soot particles and I haven't seen any flying volcanos recently.

    The GP is absolutely correct though. The article was talking about stratospheric effects. As it happens, vulcanism is perfectly capable of ejecting all sorts of substances that can have profound effects on weather into the stratosphere. [usgs.gov] How do you think eruptions like Krakatoa and Pinatubo had globe-spanning effects?

  • by Teancum ( 67324 ) <robert_horning AT netzero DOT net> on Saturday October 30, 2010 @04:06PM (#34074944) Homepage Journal

    How is the stuff from volcanoes any different? Volcanoes contain traces of just about every naturally occurring element including Uranium, extreme heat in its plume, and these compounds produced from a volcanic explosion certainly do make it to the stratosphere and sometimes even higher.

    All at once (relatively speaking), in a plume from one point. Whereas the rocket exhaust originates over a much larger area

    In this regard the rocket is much, much more focused to a very small area compared to a volcano, and a vast majority of this "soot" remains by definition in the troposphere where it rains down as... rain. It doesn't stay long in the sky. In other words, the impact of a particular rocket launch is minor compared to that of a volcano, so much so that it can be completely dismissed as having any significant impact on the global climate at all. It would take many more than 40k launches to make a difference.

    As for "high altitude nuclear weapons tests" are concerned, define "high altitude" before you come to any conclusions. The problem with the high altitude tests that ended up creating the "Nuclear Test Ban Treaty" is that they were detonated at an altitude about where the Space Shuttle flies, and the fallout persisted for some time at that altitude in the form of charged particles trapped in the Van Allen Belts, causing persistent and long term ionizing radiation problems for folks and spacecraft that had to travel into space. That is not even a legitimate or remotely fair comparison to some ash that is left over at a much lower altitude.

    The comparisons to major volcanic eruptions is very much spot on analysis as it is comparing the same things, and in some cases even the same compounds where the volcanic eruptions are going to be even more extreme in terms of heating conditions that produce those compounds.

The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts. -- Paul Erlich