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Will Rocket Launches Deplete the Ozone?

A Delta rocket launches in 2007 with the Phoenix Mars Lander.  Credit: NASA

A Delta rocket launches in 2007 with the Phoenix Mars Lander. Credit: NASA


A new study predicts that Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer will suffer significant damage from future unregulated rocket launches. The study provides a market analysis for estimating future ozone layer depletion based on the expected growth of the space industry and known impacts of rocket launches. The increase in launches could cause ozone depletion that eventually could exceed ozone losses from CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) which were banned in the 1980’s. “As the rocket launch market grows, so will ozone-destroying rocket emissions,” said Professor Darin Toohey of CU-Boulder’s atmospheric and oceanic sciences department, a member of the study. “If left unregulated, rocket launches by the year 2050 could result in more ozone destruction than was ever realized by CFCs.” The study says more research should be done on how different rockets affect the ozone before imposing stricter regulations on chemicals used in rocket fuels.

Current global rocket launches deplete the ozone layer by no more than a few hundredths of 1 percent annually, said Toohey. But as the space industry grows and other ozone-depleting chemicals decline in the Earth’s stratosphere, the issue of ozone depletion from rocket launches is expected to move to the forefront.

Rockets around the world use a variety of propellants, including solids, liquids and hybrids. Martin Ross, lead author of the study from The Aerospace Corporation Ross said while little is currently known about how they compare to each other with respect to the ozone loss they cause, new studies are needed to provide the parameters required to guide possible regulation of both commercial and government rocket launches in the future.

Since some proposed space efforts would require frequent launches of large rockets over extended periods, the new study was designed to bring attention to the issue in hopes of sparking additional research, said Ross. “In the policy world, uncertainty often leads to unnecessary regulation,” he said. “We are suggesting this could be avoided with a more robust understanding of how rockets affect the ozone layer.”

“Twenty years may seem like a long way off, but space system development often takes a decade or longer and involves large capital investments,” Ross continued. “We want to reduce the risk that unpredictable and more strict ozone regulations would be a hindrance to space access by measuring and modeling exactly how different rocket types affect the ozone layer.”

Highly reactive trace-gas molecules known as radicals dominate stratospheric ozone destruction, and a single radical in the stratosphere can destroy up to 10,000 ozone molecules before being deactivated and removed from the stratosphere. Microscopic particles, including soot and aluminum oxide particles emitted by rocket engines, provide chemically active surface areas that increase the rate such radicals “leak” from their reservoirs and contribute to ozone destruction, said Toohey.

In addition, every type of rocket engine causes some ozone loss, and rocket combustion products are the only human sources of ozone-destroying compounds injected directly into the middle and upper stratosphere where the ozone layer resides, he said.

The research team is optimistic that a solution to the problem exists. “We have the resources, we have the expertise, and we now have the regulatory history to address this issue in a very powerful way,” said Toohey. “I am optimistic that we are going to solve this problem, but we are not going to solve it by doing nothing.”

Source: EurekAlert

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Feenixx April 2, 2009, 9:14 AM

    double up all efforts to develop a suitable CNT material for the tether, and then…. roll on the Space Elevator!
    :)

  • Nephish777 April 2, 2009, 9:50 AM

    I wonder if a practical magnectic levitation launch system could be developed, at least for unmanned launches?

  • Tufluv April 2, 2009, 10:29 AM

    Don’t give the liberal treehuggers any more ammo, or our space program will be dismantled by the Obama regime.

    People’s Republcic of America, here we come.

  • Phil-B April 2, 2009, 11:33 AM

    Suggestion of time-travel:

    “There’s less than 24 hours left before Earth Century 2009 will begin. While you may hotly debate whether or not turning out our rockets for one century can impact our global climate – it’s not about what actually happens to our planet during that century, but about showing you care.”

    And so on…

  • Mike Puckett April 2, 2009, 1:47 PM

    Only solid fueled rockets have an impact. Liquid fueled rockets, which constitute the overwhelming majoriy, do not put radical elements into the ozone layer.

    Kerolox rockets issue co2 and water vapor.

    Hydrogen rockets only water vapor.

    Neither pose any threat to the ozone layer whatsoever.

    Any space indusrty of sufficient size and traffic to harm the ozone layer will not be using an appreciable amount of solids simply because they are not economical at that level of use. Solids simply will not scale down in cost sufficiently at any kind of high flight rate.

    The problem is a non-problem and would be self limiting.

  • CrossoverManiac April 2, 2009, 5:57 PM

    Tufluv Says:

    “Don’t give the liberal treehuggers any more ammo, or our space program will be dismantled by the Obama regime.

    People’s Republcic of America, here we come.”

    AMEN! The neo-Luddite, anti-technology environmentalist scum will not rest until mankind is tossed back into the Stone Age. DEATH THE ENVIRONMENTALIST MOVEMENT! DEATH TO GREENPEACE! DEATH THE SIERRA CLUB! DEATH TO THEIR CAUSE.

  • Ferris Valyn April 2, 2009, 9:48 PM

    Seriously, did either Crossovermanic or Tufluv bother to look at Obama’s space proposal? It was damn good.

    This liberal treehugging space cadet believes we can figure out how to develop space, and not crap all over the planet.

  • Astrofiend April 5, 2009, 6:49 PM

    CrossoverManiac Says:
    April 2nd, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    “AMEN! The neo-Luddite, anti-technology environmentalist scum will not rest until mankind is tossed back into the Stone Age. DEATH THE ENVIRONMENTALIST MOVEMENT! DEATH TO GREENPEACE! DEATH THE SIERRA CLUB! DEATH TO THEIR CAUSE.”

    Woah! Relax, psycho.

    Your little rant makes it perfectly clear that you’re just as reactionary as them, complete with ill-considered and impractical views to match – only in the diametrically opposed direction. Thanks for the warning – we may now safely ignore any opinion you hold or anything you have to say.

    One day, the sheer density of reactionary extremism (be it religious, environmental, political – the list, unsurprisingly, goes on and on) will form a critical mass, and implode in on itself in a whirling black hole vortex of super-dumb.

    It’ll be great. Those left will be able to inhabit a perfect new world – a world in which science, morality and articulate debate form the highest ideals. With me as it’s leader and GOD! Hmmm – maybe I’ll start a cult. That’d be awesome. But I digress…

  • elfofgod April 6, 2009, 9:43 PM

    No death rants, k? Enviro movements tend to go too far, true, but we ought to balance using our resources with not abusing them.

    You’re right Astrofiend, the foolery of falsehood will eventually be revealed for what it is, but God has it all in hand just fine on His own.

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