SpaceX stages an amazing launch – but what about the environmental impact?

February 8, 2018 by Ian Whittaker, The Conversation
Credit: SpaceX via Twitter

SpaceX has now launched the most powerful spacecraft since the Apollo era – the Falcon Heavy rocket – setting the bar for future space launches. The most important thing about this reusable spacecraft is that it can carry a payload equivalent to sending five double-decker London buses into space – which will be invaluable for future manned space exploration or in sending bigger satellites into orbit.

Falcon Heavy essentially comprises three previously tested rockets strapped together to create one giant spacecraft. The launch drew massive international audiences – but while it was an amazing event to witness, there are some important potential drawbacks that must be considered as we assess the impact of this mission on exploration.

But let's start by looking at some of the many positives. Falcon Heavy is capable of taking 68 tonnes of equipment into orbit close to the Earth. The current closest competitor is the Delta IV heavy which has a payload equivalent of 29 tonnes. So Falcon Heavy represents a big step forward in delivering ever larger satellites or manned missions out to explore our solar system. For the purposes of colonising Mars or the moon, this is a welcome and necessary development.

The launch itself, the views from the payload and the landing of the booster rockets can only be described as stunning. The chosen payload was a Tesla Roadster vehicle belonging to Space X founder and CEO Elon Musk – with a dummy named "Starman" sitting in the driver's seat along with plenty of cameras.

This sort of launch spectacle gives a much needed public engagement boost to the space industry that has not been seen since the time of the space race in the 1960s. As a side effect this camera feed from the payload also provided yet another proof that the Earth is not flat – a subject about which Musk has previously been vocal.

The fact that this is a fully reusable is also an exciting development. While vehicles such as the Space Shuttle have been reusable, their launch vehicles have not. That means their launches resulted in a lot of rocket boosters and main fuel tanks either burning up in the atmosphere or sitting on the bottom of the ocean (some are recovered).

This recovery massively reduces the launch cost for both exploration and scientific discovery. The Falcon Heavy has been promoted as providing a cost of roughly US$1,300 per kg of payload, while the space shuttle cost approximately US$60,000 per kg. The impact this price drop has for innovative new space products and research is groundbreaking. The on this test flight had a controlled and breathtakingly simultaneous landing onto the launch pad.

Environmental impact

So what could possibly be wrong with this groundbreaking test flight? While visually appealing, cheaper and a major technological advancement, what about the environmental impact? The rocket is reusable, which means cutting down the resources required for the metal body of the rocket. However, the mass of most rockets are more than 95% fuel. Building bigger rockets with bigger payloads means more fuel is used for each launch. The current fuel for Falcon Heavy is RP-1 (a refined kerosene) and liquid oxygen, which creates a lot of carbon dioxide when burnt.

The amount of kerosene in three Falcon 9 rockets is roughly 440 tonnes and RP-1 has a 34% carbon content. This amount of carbon is a drop in the ocean compared to global industrial emissions as a whole, but if the SpaceX's plan for a rocket launch every two weeks comes to fruition, this amount of carbon (approximately 4,000 tonnes per year) will rapidly become a bigger problem.

Space Junk. Credit: David Shikomba/wikipedia, CC BY

Space hazards

The car test payload is also something of an issue. The vehicle has been scheduled to head towards Mars, but what has not been made clear is what is going to happen to it afterwards. Every modern space mission is required to think about clearing up after itself. In the cases of planetary or lunar satellites this inevitably results in either a controlled burn-up in the atmosphere, or a direct impact with the body they orbit.

Space debris is rapidly becoming one of the biggest problems we face – there are more than 150m objects that need tracking to ensure as few collisions with working spacecraft as possible. The result of any impact or degradation of the car near Mars could start creating debris at the red planet, meaning that the pollution of another planet has already begun.

However, current reports suggest that the rocket may have overshot its trajectory, meaning the vehicle will head towards the asteroid belt rather than Mars. This is probably going to mean a collision is inevitable. The scattering of tiny fragments of an electric vehicle is pollution at the minimum – and a safety hazard for future missions at worst. Where these fragments end up will be hard to predict – and hence troublesome for future satellite launches to Mars, Saturn or Jupiter. The debris could be drawn by the gravity of Mars, asteroids or even swept away with the solar wind.

What is also unclear is whether the car was built in a perfect clean room. If not there is the risk that bacteria from Earth may spread through the solar system after a collision. This would be extremely serious, given that we are currently planning to search for life on neighbouring bodies such as Mars and Jupiter's moon Europa. If microorganisms were found there we may never know whether they actually came from Earth in the first place.

Of course, these issues don't affect my sense of excitement and wonder at watching the amazing launch. The potential advantages of this large-scale rocket are incredible, but private space firms must also be aware that the potential negative impacts (both in space and on Earth) are just as large.

Explore further: Elon Musk is launching a Tesla into space – here's how SpaceX will do it

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16 comments

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dirk_bruere
1 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2018
STFU envirowhiners
skystare
3.3 / 5 (3) Feb 08, 2018
Yes,some time in the next billion years that car will hit something. Probably.

When we give up piston cars for electric, and coal fired power plants for anything else, the world will easily have the capacity to absorb all the rocket flights we can afford.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Feb 08, 2018
This is probably going to mean a collision is inevitable. The scattering of tiny fragments of an electric vehicle is pollution at the minimum – and a safety hazard for future missions at worst. Where these fragments end up will be hard to predict – and hence troublesome for future satellite launches to Mars, Saturn or Jupiter.

I think the author needs a serious reality check about the size of space.
eachus
not rated yet Feb 08, 2018
1) The Falcon 9H is a huge reduction in space launch costs over other existing heavy launchers. From an environmental impact point of view, it is not perfect, it is also huge reduction in environmental impact. Hundreds of times better than launchers with strap-on solid boosters.

What about "space junk"? None left in earth orbit, especially near earth orbit where this is becoming a problem. What about the asteroid belt? Um, you mean that the asteroid belt is not lots of junk left over from the creation of the planets?

Seriously, there are those "environmentalists" who want some perfect ideal which can only be accomplished by wiping out the human race, and some animal species as well. Like complaining that natural gas from fracking is not perfect, even though it is environmentally a huge improvement over the coal which it is replacing.
Osiris1
5 / 5 (2) Feb 08, 2018
Talk of academic 'problems' near the orbit is Saturn involving 'pollution from hydrocarbons' from 'possible collisions' insinuated in this alarmist article is really 'agitprop' = propaganda to stir up uneducated people that also tend to vote like sheep!! We have a whole moon the size of a planet near there, Titan, with an ATMOSPHERE and a thick one to boot--of LOTs of aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons and other organic substances. We have asteroids that make their existance on collisions every thousand years or so if that.

However to make nations file 'Environmental Impact Statements' so that our mutual attornies can hamstring this industry for generations only benefits lawyers, and we all know the British Samual Coleridge quote: "The law is an ass!"

Problem is if we do not go to space, we WILL go extinct!! We do a LOT of other 'pollution' and only huge armies and ruinous wars will even attempt to stop it...look a Krazy Kim the rocket boy. Stop HIM if you dare!
Chris_T_Pony
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 08, 2018

'RP-1 has a carbon content of 34%'
It does not; more like 86%. That gives us an annual release of (52/2)*440*0.86=9800t as carbon. This is 36kt as carbon dioxide.
Global emissions (2015, EPA figures) are 6.6Gt as CO2. So at maximum planned launch rate, we're talking about an additional 0.0005%. Hardly a big impact.

One more lump of metal and plastic in the deep black won't make any difference; we have plenty of other probes, dead or otherwise. As the good book says: "Space is big, really big. You may think it's a long way down to the shops, but...."

The biosafety part also sounds highly dubious. If it hits anything, it will experience no soft landing, but a hypervelocity impact. That's not to say bugs can't survive those events, but the reality of multiple meteor impacts on Earth ejecting material past escape velocity renders it moot (I don't think this has been proved to occur, but we do find Mars rocks on Earth, so...).
Osiris1
2 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2018
The possibility of a collision with the debris of an infinitesimally small ship given the many orders of magnitude immensely large size of the volume of space in the area of the gas giants and asteroids...... is vanishingly small, statistically speaking, to the point of total implausibility! Once upon a time long ago, technical subjects at university were taught with the acceptance of slide rule accuracy... three digits. THREE MEASLY DIGITS!! That is less than a thousand of anything in a volume of quadrillions of cubic miles. This 'writer is either certifiably commitment to a loooney bin insane or he/she is an idealogical international saboteur bent on creating chaos and should be locked up forever.

In either case, the world does not need that kind of talk. We have our planetary pollution problem BECAUSE of that traitor to humanity. The nuclear industry was stopped its tracks 'cuz o' saboteurs. We got COAL plants instead. T'was a reason saboteurs were hung!
ShotmanMaslo
5 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2018
Future SpaceX rocket, the BFR, will be powered by methane. It burns a lot cleaner than RP-1, and in theory methane can even be synthetized in a carbon neutral manner, from water and air. In practice lots of energy would be required, tough.
martae
3 / 5 (2) Feb 08, 2018
The car that was launched is now in a heliocentric orbit that crosses the orbits of earth, mars, and the asteroid belt. It won't be a problem.
Current SpaceX rockets are powered by their Merlin engines, which use highly refined kerosene as fuel, and liquid oxygen as an oxidizer, just like the Saturn 5 first stage did.
As soon as they can, SpaceX will transition to the "Raptor" engine which I believe is almost ready. It will use liquid methane as fuel, and liquid oxygen as an oxidizer. It will be used first on the second stages of rockets, but eventually it will completely replace the Merlin engine. It's specific impulse is higher, and it's fuel contains much less carbon.
Cusco
3 / 5 (2) Feb 08, 2018
The writer is named Ian Whittaker, and my first thought was that their knowledge of space science had to be infinitesimally small. Instead I find that he's an astrophysics lecturer. WTF???

Now I'm wondering if someone just affixed his name to this cobbled-together piece of dreck to make it sound more authoritative.
eljo
1 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2018

"If not there is the risk that bacteria from Earth may spread through the solar system after a collision."

Yes, Ian. As long as there has been life on planet Earth and billions of years of big rocks hitting the planet, there has been a risk that bacteria from Earth may have spread through the solar system after a collision.

Using your accurate guesstimate, it might even be likely.
Anonym219104
not rated yet Feb 10, 2018
In regards to the environmental impact on our planet we will eventually have to deal with the space junk around our planet but much of the goal of space exploration is acquiring natural resources which you would think would eventually have a positive environmental impact on our planet.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Feb 10, 2018
"sending five double-decker London buses into space"

-Jeez let's not be giving musk any ideas.

A little more detail on Ian Whittaker

"completed my PhD in 2010 looking at the interaction of the Sun with the upper atmosphere of Venus. Since then I have held six postdoctoral contracts, covering medical imaging, solar physics, the Earth's radiation belts, lightning in tropical cyclones, X-ray astronomy, and X-ray observations of the Earth's magnetopause."

- and it is even more baffling that he thinks musks car is a hazard to asteroids from kerosene or earth diseases.

How embarrassing.

I can only blame the clickbait epidemic sweeping the obsolete news media. It will not save them you know.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (2) Feb 10, 2018
The writer is named Ian Whittaker, and my first thought was that their knowledge of space science had to be infinitesimally small. Instead I find that he's an astrophysics lecturer. WTF?!

LOL, he's just a typical plasma ignoramus. They're all mostly morons anymore as the really smart ones who are able to think for themselves are weeded out of the PhD programs.
Benni
1 / 5 (1) Feb 10, 2018
"The current fuel for Falcon Heavy is RP-1 (a refined kerosene) and liquid oxygen, which creates a lot of carbon dioxide when burnt.

The amount of kerosene in three Falcon 9 rockets is roughly 440 tonnes and RP-1 has a 34% carbon content. This amount of carbon is a drop in the ocean compared to global industrial emissions as a whole, but if the SpaceX's plan for a rocket launch every two weeks comes to fruition, this amount of carbon (approximately 4,000 tonnes per year) will rapidly become a bigger problem.".

.....and we're gonna need every molecule of this CO2 if there's to be any hope of blunting the effects of the new mini-ice age by 2050. With 10 billion people on the planet by then & less farmland available we need to be working right now to deal with this situation. We probably need to get CO2 up to about 8 ppm before 2050 or there is gonna be mass starvation, except for at my place where we will grow stuff inside greenhouses ( I need to check that latitude).

TrollBane
not rated yet Feb 10, 2018
Increased launch capacity at reduced cost also makes it easier to launch devices and experiments in remediation of space debris.

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