By Matt Zhang
Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned with the pollution of space. As technology progresses and our capabilities expand, such developments may keep us on Earth, or even worsen our living conditions on the ground. In recent years, the concept of space tourism has become more popular. Most recently, Jeff Bezos along with Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen took a trip into suborbit on the New Shepard. This article will focus on two issues specifically; the space tourism industry and satellite/space debris, and their potential impacts on our future.
The first main issue comes with fuel. To propel itself, a rocket needs fuel to combust and eject matter, thrusting it upwards or forwards. Yet, the matter it leaves behind can be a problem. As space tourism becomes popular and more and more space crafts soar into the upper layers of our atmosphere, they can leave behind clouds of soot. Hybrid engines, the most common type of rocket today, burn certain materials and leave behind other compounds. In the case of SpaceShipTwo, the fuel was rubber, and for NASA’s solid rocket engines, metallic compounds were used. In comparison to other forms of transportation, a 1.5 hour Virgin Galactic trip can create as much pollution as a 10-hour trans-Atlantic commercial flight. Especially in light of the potential growth of the space tourism industry, this could become a problem. Even if the flights are relatively few, their contributions can still have a major effect on the atmosphere. Although the impact has been very small as of now, this is likely due to the small number of launches as well. As things scale, scientists are still unsure as to the potential problems that may arise.
Another issue comes with a much larger potential problem. As we continue to research and learn more about our astronomical surroundings, we also leave lots of material in orbit around the Earth. Over the past century, we have put over ten thousand satellites into orbit, resembling a cloud around it.
Photo taken from https://maps.esri.com/rc/sat2/index.html
Each tiny white dot represents a satellite. Visit the site to learn more and use the interactive simulation.
Now, this could potentially not be a problem, given calculations were made and courses adjusted so that they would all never meet. Unfortunately, space debris also exists. When debris is ejected or missions fail, space debris can stay in orbit and pose a huge threat to existing satellites or other spacecraft. In some cases, debris can break up, becoming tiny pieces of metal that can damage spacecraft, or, depending on relative velocity, destroy others. Given the fragility of satellite technology, even a small collision can render the entire thing unusable. As a result, that very satellite can become another piece of debris, floating around the Earth until it burns up in the atmosphere or finds a way out. With projects such as Elon Musk’s Starlink, which would introduce many more satellites, space has no end to its problems. If left unchecked, we could soon enter a world where debris clouding orbit renders spaceflight unsafe, and keep us grounded. How ironic would it be if our research and progress was the very thing keeping us from reaching beyond our planet?