Black Carbon from rocket launches will warm the atmosphere | MarketingwithAnoy

In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a couple of outspoken scientists reveal how warp drives – the show’s ubiquitous propulsion system used to get travelers around space – can be incredibly environmentally damaging. From then on, the characters make sure to limit the damage of their spaceflights.

Could a similar scenario now unfold in the real universe, minus the engines that are faster than light? Atmospheric scientist Christopher Maloney thinks so. In a new study, he and his colleagues modeled how black carbon emitted by rocket launches around the world is likely to gradually heat up parts of the intermediate atmosphere and deplete the ozone layer. The published their results on June 1 in Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

“There’s a lot of momentum going on at the moment in terms of rocket launches and satellite constellations rising, so it’s important to start researching this to investigate what impacts we could potentially see,” says Maloney, who is based at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Chemical Sciences Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.

Maloney and his colleagues’ models start with typical launch pads, where rockets blow a spray of small particles called aerosols out of their engine nozzles. The most dangerous exhaust component is black carbon or soot. Rockets release tons of these microscopic particles into the stratosphere, especially between 15 and 40 kilometers above the ground, above where the planes fly. Modern jet engines also exhibit black carbon, but in much smaller amounts. Falling decaying satellites also emit aerosols as they burn up in the stratosphere. Since these particles remain in the stratosphere for about four years, they can accumulate, especially in areas where space travel is concentrated.

Maloney and his team used a high-resolution climate model to predict the effects of this pollution on the atmosphere, and studied how aerosols of different sizes could heat or cool areas of space at different latitudes, longitudes and altitudes. They found that within two decades, temperatures in parts of the stratosphere could rise by as much as 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, and that the ozone layer could become slightly thinner in the northern hemisphere. They generally conclude that more rockets mean more warming and increased ozone loss, which can be a problem, especially because humans, wildlife and crops need the ozone layer to protect them from ultraviolet radiation.

According to their accounts, rocket launches each year exhibit a total of about 1 gigagram or 1,000 tons of black carbon into the stratosphere. Within two decades, it can easily rise up to 10 gigagrams or more, thanks to the increasing number of rocket launches. Researchers are considering several black carbon emission scenarios, including levels reaching 30 and 100 gigagrams, which, although extreme, could happen within a few decades more if rocket engine technologies and trends do not change much. They focus their analysis on widespread petroleum-burning rocket engines, such as the first-stage boosters of SpaceX Falcon, Rocket Lab Electron, and Russian Soyuz rockets.

With the global launch rate increasing by approx 8 percent per year, they expect as many as 1,000 hydrocarbon-burning rockets to explode each year in the 2040s. This is due in part to declining launch costs and the growth of the commercial space industry, as well as the rockets needed to launch growing satellite networks such as SpaceX’s Starlink, Amazon’s Project Kuiper and OneWeb. Suborbital spaceflights, such as Blue Origin’s and Virgin Galactic’s, also penetrate the stratosphere.

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