As the space industry grows, spacecraft leave behind more and more of the atmosphere. According to the research publication Our World in Data, more than 2,600 objects, including rockets and satellites, were launched into space last year.
When a spacecraft launches, it leaves behind a stream of pollutants, many of which end up in Earth’s stratosphere. This exhaust gas and the debris left behind contribute to what scientists call space pollution. And there are real concerns that this super global pollution could affect the global environment.
Freelance science journalist Shannon Hall recently wrote a piece for the New York Times about space pollution. “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Hall about her work and began the conversation with a question about what is being done to regulate the industry. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
Shannon Hall: We are doing almost nothing. Therefore, no one is regulating the atmosphere at the moment. The Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Communications Commission, and Federal Aviation Administration do not assess the environmental effects of rocket launches on the atmosphere.
Kai Ryssdal: So let’s actually get that straight. SpaceX, Blue Origin, NASA, or any company that launches rockets, which makes sense since SpaceX in particular is a fast-growing business, but isn’t anyone monitoring the emissions from these rockets?
hole: Not so when it comes to atmosphere.
Ryssdal: And that’s not great.
hole: No, that’s not great. And scientists are very concerned about how it will affect our environment.
Ryssdal: Please say more about it because I can’t imagine it being good for the environment.
hole: Scientists are therefore worried about rocket exhaust gases building up in the atmosphere. Many scientists compare this pollution to that from volcanic eruptions. When Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, enough sulfur dioxide gas was released into the atmosphere to heat the stratosphere. And scientists worry that the black carbon and soot emitted by modern rockets may act much like those volcanic particles. Currently, there is an ozone layer in the stratosphere that protects us from the sun’s harmful radiation. That means a surge in these launches can actually increase your risk of skin cancer, cataracts, and immune disorders. All this is because it damages the ozone layer.
Ryssdal: We have data on what emissions are, right? So at the beginning of this article, he describes his NASA pilots and scientists flying through the plume of a SpaceX rocket.
hole: Yes, there is some initial research. For example, one study found that soot from rockets is nearly 500 times more efficient at heating the atmosphere than soot emitted from sources such as airplanes. The study you reference actually concerns the other side of the equation. So not only do these companies need rockets to launch satellites into orbit, but those satellites can also fall back to Earth. Many satellites have a lifespan of 5 to 15 years. And at that point, it’s actually designed to fall to Earth and disintegrate in the atmosphere. But it leaves a stream of pollutants in its wake. And we already see those pollutants embedded in about 10% of the most common particles in the stratosphere.
Ryssdal: You point out that the scientists who are raising legitimate concerns about this don’t want to stifle the space economy. And you point to Starlink, Elon Musk’s company that delivers internet to underserved areas, and other services, but that’s a whole other podcast. They realize space is a business opportunity, right?
hole: Oh, absolutely. And satellites offer great benefits. I mean, let’s think about natural disasters. Communications satellites provide data to hospitals and local businesses, helping to keep everything afloat so disaster survivors can get the help they need. That’s amazing.
Ryssdal: Are people actually addressing the challenges you present in this piece?
hole: yes. And I think it’s important to note that scientists don’t want to stop the booming space economy, they want to take a breather. They want to do the research they’re doing now to find out how many rocket launches are too many, so that we don’t end up in a situation where we’re already having a negative impact on the environment. too late.
There’s a lot going on in the world. For everything, Marketplace is here for you.
You use the Marketplace to analyze world events and communicate how they affect you in a factual and approachable way. We rely on your financial support to continue making that possible.
Your donation today helps power the independent journalism you depend on. For as little as $5 a month, you can help sustain our marketplace. This allows us to continue reporting on the things that matter to you.