Study: Space Tourism Could Contribute to Climate Change

Like it or not, space tourism is coming soon. But while Virgin Galactic claims that sending tourists into space is environmentally sound, climate change researchers aren’t so sure. That’s because soot particles released by space tourism rockets could sit in the atmosphere for years, potentially absorbing sunlight that would otherwise touch down on Earth’s surface.

At first glance, sunlight-absorbing particles don’t sound so bad; we want to keep the planet from warming, right? It’s not quite that simple. Under the soot layer, the planet’s surface would cool by up to 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit, but Antarctica would heat up by 1.5 degrees F. At the same time, equatorial areas could lose 1% of their ozone, and the poles could gain up to 10%. The net result of those changes isn’t good, according to LiveScience

The global effect would
be an increase in the amount of solar energy absorbed by the Earth’s
atmosphere. That means the soot from the rockets contributes to
atmospheric heating at a rate higher than the carbon dioxide from those
same rockets. An earlier study by Ross, published in March 2009 in the journal
Astrophysics, found that rocket emissions are particularly harmful to
the ozone because they’re injected directly into the stratosphere where
the ozone layer resides.

This is all based on a pretty large estimate of space tourism. The study, which is being published in Geophysical Research Letters, assumes that 1,000 suborbital rockets would be launched each year. And now that researchers have discovered the soot particle problem, companies like Virgin can work on developing fixes before space tourism becomes a big industry (with Foursquare check-ins and all!)–that is, if they choose to pay attention.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.AS