Environment

The UK tried to launch its first orbital space rocket – but how much did this historic moment pollute the atmosphere?

The UK is set to enter the space race with the launch of Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne. But how bad for the environment is it?

The Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket. Image: Virgin Orbit

As the UK prepared for the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne space launch on January 9, following record breaking heatwaves across Europe, many were asking: what damage will this do to the environment?

Richard Branson’s rocket was launched from underneath the left wing of a repurposed 747 jumbo jet, previously belonging to his passenger airline.

The jet flew from Newquay Airport over the Atlantic Ocean to a launch zone just off the coast of Ireland, where it released a rocket carrying nine British-built satellites into orbit. However, after the rocket ignited and appeared to be rising steadily, Virgin Orbit told BBC News the rocket had suffered an “anomaly,” meaning the satellites could not be carried into space and were instead lost.

Dr Eloise Marais, an associate professor in physical geography at UCL, told The Big Issue: “The major impact is from soot particles, also known as black carbon or PM2.5, released from the carbon-based fuel used in rockets. They’re very good at absorbing the sun’s rays, which warms the higher layers of the atmosphere currently, but there could be other consequences in the future.”

Exponential growth in the number of rocket launches from putting satellites into orbit and space tourism could result in black carbon damaging the ozone layer, which protects us from the sun’s harmful radiation, and further impact on the climate and air quality on earth, Dr Marais explained.

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Marais previously co-authored a scientific paper published in 2022 that looked into the impact of rocket launches on the environment. It used a simulation to work out how rocket launches affect climate and air quality.

PM2.5 is shorthand for any particles smaller than 2.5 microns. They can be released by cars, factories, power stations and domestic heating and do extensive damage to our lungs. Research from the Royal College of Physicians in 2015 found nearly 40,000 deaths a year in the UK can be attributed to air pollution.

Though the pollutants being released by rockets are not immediately contributing to air pollution, longer-term effects of rocket launch emissions have not yet been studied. 

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Virgin Orbit did not immediately respond to requests for comment on its emissions. But, a study commissioned by Spaceport Cornwall, where the launch is taking place, and conducted by Exeter University, found overall annual emissions for the spaceport would be no more than 0.1 percent of Cornwall’s overall carbon emissions.

Dr Xiaoyu Yan, a senior lecturer in energy and environment at the University of Exeter, said the report was “rigorous” and emissions from the spaceport are “relatively low”, the Falmouth Packet reported.

William Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, previously told the BBC: “The space launch industry remains a relatively small driver of atmospheric emissions compared with, say, commercial aviation with more than 20 million flights worldwide, and other industries.”

“In terms of carbon emissions, rockets aren’t making a very large contribution to the total that comes from other pollution sources,” Dr. Marais said, but she added it is not carbon emissions that are the main issue with rocket launches. 

“The focus on that really de-emphasises how important other pollutants from rockets are. It’s an erroneous comparison to count the number of soot particles produced from rockets and compare it to the number of particles produced from other sources, because those other sources aren’t injecting them into multiple layers of the atmosphere like rockets do.”

She added: “Particles of PM2.5 produced by cars and aircrafts stay in the atmosphere for only a few weeks but those produced by rockets can stay in the upper atmosphere for over two years.”

Many satellites are now being used to collect significant climate data, which will help scientists to better understand and predict future climate events. At least two of the satellites being carried on Monday’s launch will track the effects of weather conditions and events in space on the Earth’s atmosphere. 

Dr. Marais said: “I myself use satellites extensively in my research. I fully appreciate they are vital for enhancing our understanding of the environment. But, I think we can also work together as a community to develop regulations that minimise the harmful impacts of rocket launches on the atmosphere. They can happen in unison – we all want to benefit from the way satellites have made life easier and enabled research into the climate crisis, while not further contributing to the climate crisis.”

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