Should we be concerned about rocket pollution?

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Human activities in space, for more than the past fifty years, have brought about an improvement in qualify of life that most of us lack the ability to appreciate fully. While the basis of our space programs can be traced back to an ego battle between the US & USSR, on the lower level – it was primarily driven by our  interest to explore. Satellite telecommunications, global positions, advanced weather forecasts are some of the numerous byproducts of space exploration whose benefits we now enjoy. And of course, there are new perspectives, a better understanding, and knowledge of our universe.

The need for advancement in space exploration is an efficient driver for science and technology. This has led to the distinct development of technologies like solar cells, batteries, and fuel cells etc. Despite the gains being of an overwhelming nature, there is criticism that rocket launches play a major role in the depletion of ozone and stratospheric layer. This criticism paints a picture that space explorations are a major waste of resources, and cause a negative impact on the atmosphere.

Also Read: Why Can’t We Have Electric Rockets?

Myth: The Space Shuttle punched hole through ozone

A longstanding myth involved the belief that the Space Shuttle passed through the ozone layer, punching a big hole in it and thus destroying our stratosphere. This arose from the fact that HCl release included chlorine, which bonds with ozone. A detailed study by NASA concluded that the Space Shuttle contributed 0.016% to halo-carbons release worldwide. Annually. So of course the Space Shuttle wasn’t doing anywhere close to even negligible damage. Efforts were taken by NASA to decrease the even meager amount of chlorofluorocarbons material used to cover the eternal engine.

Ozone damage by CFCs and HFCs

When compared to rocket launches which happen once in a while, CFC’s and HFC’s emitted from everyday products pose a serious threat to the environment. Their accumulation in the stratosphere is highly detrimental to the ozone layer. These anthropogenic compounds are released into the atmosphere since 1930 by frequently used everyday applications right from shaving cream, air-conditioning, refrigeration, insulation, aerosol cans to chlorine in swimming pools. Thus increasing usage of these products every day will further worsen the rate of ozone depletion. Instead of focusing our attention on pollution from rocket launch our attention should be on working methods to find out safe alternatives for CFC emitting products.

Pros > Cons

The perpetual existence of challenges in the field of space exploration gives impetus for continuing the effort to design more capable and reliable and efficient systems. It simulates pathbreaking advances in the field of science thus supporting advances in the field of economic development. The medical benefits of space exploration include a wider list of implantable heart monitors, MRI scans, and light based anticancer therapy and also biomedical technologies. Almost every product used in this world has a direct or indirect influence in its making. These space exploration programs, which are accused of polluting and being detrimental to the stratosphere layer, are the ones who largely made it possible for us to measure air quality in the first place. Climate forecasting too, is courtesy dedicated satellites. And are we forgetting the holy grail in comsology – the propsects of discovering life beyond our planet! If rockets are polluting, we better find a solution instead of shutting off spaceflight.

Does space exploration degrade the environment?

Space exploration’s role in pollution is beyond negligible. All anxiety about its potential future threat overlooks the obvious benefits spaceflight delivers to our species. Environmentalists point out that emissions from rocket launches contribute more to the depletion of ozone layer. This claim is false, backed by numbers. In a recent research, the researchers have estimated that rocket launches are responsible for hardly 1% of the total ozone depletion caused by human activities.

Initially, rockets were fueled by solid propellants. However, with advanced liquid hydrogen fuel, the byproduct materials are largely harmless, with a negligent effect on the stratospheric layer. In comparison to our everyday activities which release CFC and HCFC, rocket launches make only a minor contribution to such damage. Looking at all these perks it is easy to conclude that pollution from space exploration is not a matter of environmental concern.

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