What is the environmental impact of SpaceX?

SpaceX’s next rocket launch is just around the corner. The Falcon 9 is small fry compared to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, but many observers are now starting to consider the environmental impact the company’s numerous launches are having.
SpaceX Falcon Heavy
SpaceX now regularly launches rockets into space. Photo: Official SpaceX Photos via Flickr

Elon Musk’s privately-owned space transportation company seems to be hitting its stride. As with any complicated, high-risk engineering challenge, it takes a while to get everything right.

The spectacular, explosive failures which we seemed to witness quite regularly just a couple of years ago are now few and far between.

SpaceX’s progress

The company’s latest space launch will be taking place in just two days’ time, on 4 December. As usual, it will available to watch live.

SpaceX has now proven itself a reliable launch provider, earning regular launch contracts from NASA. Wednesday’s Falcon 9 launch will transport CubeSats to the International Space Station, along with various other scientific equipment.

One of the most important features of the Falcon 9 booster from a cost perspective is the fact that it is reusable. The Falcon 9 booster used in the most recent mission had been launched and landed successfully three times already.

SpaceX Falcon 9
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will next be launched on Wednesday. Photo: Official SpaceX Photos via Flickr

Obviously, this is a key objective for SpaceX when it comes to creating a profitable business, as rocket components are expensive to produce.

But it is also important from an environmental perspective. The manufacturing process is highly energy-intensive, and any rocket which is launched into space without returning to Earth is lost forever. This is a big deal in today’s increasingly resource-deprived world.

SpaceX’s carbon emissions

Carbon emissions are one of the biggest environmental impacts of any human activity, but they also happen to be the least noticeable in the short term.

For example, the noise pollution produced by a rocket launch is much more immediately obvious than its carbon emissions.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which is much smaller than its Falcon Heavy, uses over 140 tonnes of Kerosene per launch.

This is not that much when you consider the fact that a Boeing 747 flying from London to New York uses around half that amount of Kerosene.

But the carbon emissions released by rocket launches are deposited in a different part of the atmosphere. This means they will have a considerably different environmental impact.

Researchers from National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan studied the impact of a 2017 Falcon 9 launch on the upper atmosphere.

They found that the rocket punched a 900-kilometer-wide hole in the plasma of Earth’s ionosphere. The researchers also concluded that this hole may well have interfered with GPS signals.

Earth
The long term impact of frequent space launches is not clear yet. Photo: Yuri Samoilov via Flickr

Because rockets spew much of their emissions into the upper atmosphere, their environmental impact is very different to conventional aircraft.

Rocket launches still haven’t reached regular frequency yet, so their environmental impact on the upper atmosphere isn’t clear.

But SpaceX reportedly has plans to launch a rocket into space every two weeks once it has fully scaled its operation. Once this happens, the impact of rockets regularly passing through Earth’s atmosphere will become more apparent.

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