Trustful_badger’s post on whether or not we should make electric space rockets got us thinking about whether space exploration can ever be environmentally friendly. We’ve been talking a lot about the environment recently and, for many people in our school, it is a key priority for the future. Therefore we were interested to see if our desire to look after the environment conflicted with our positive view on space exploration.
According to an article on Science Focus, space launches can have a hefty carbon footprint due to the burning of solid rocket fuels. This is obviously not great for the environment since lots of greenhouse gases are produced which contribute to pollution and damaging the Earth’s atmosphere. Rocket engines also release trace gases into the upper atmosphere that contribute to ozone depletion. Space junk is also a major concern when it comes to the environment.
However, there is good news. Many rockets use liquid hydrogen fuel, which produces ‘clean’ water vapour exhaust, which does not in itself harm our environment (although the production of hydrogen can cause significant carbon emissions). On top of this, rocket launches are relatively infrequent, meaning that their overall impact on our climate remains quite small.
In our opinion, it is possible to make space exploration more environmentally friendly:
1. It might be possible to use ‘green fuel’, which NASA is already looking into. This would be able to be broken down into harmless components, which would mean that it wouldn’t damage the environment. The heavier a spacecraft is, the more fuel it needs which means that the heavier a spacecraft the more pollution it produces. One solution to this might be something called a space elevator, which sounds impossible but is actually already being worked on by scientists. It is essential as it sounds: a lift in space. We would something with a lot of mass into the Earth’s orbit, attach a cable between the orbiting mass and the Earth and build an elevator that can climb the cable out into space! I’m not convinced it would work but it’s an idea…
2. Fusion might be a very environmentally friendly way to power a space shuttle because you could get a lot of energy (enough to power a spaceship) from a very small amount. The problem is that scientists haven’t yet figured out how to use fusion reliably as it requires a lot of heat and pressure. Hopefully one day soon this will become a viable way of generating power.
3. Solar sails could be used to help a rocket move through space, though it wouldn’t help it to get off the ground and into the Earth’s atmosphere. The solar sail would use the sun as an engine, with the sun’s photons pushes forward a sail attached to a spacecraft. This renewable form of energy would be great for the environment.
4. It doesn’t just come down to fuelling the spacecraft. There are other environmental considerations to be made. Resources, for example, such as water. There are systems on board every space craft that are used to purify water so that astronauts have a clean water supply. These systems allow the purification of grey water, which is waste water used for cleaning as well as urine and sweat. Conserving every drop of water is clearly environmentally friendly and may help us learn how to save water here on Earth too.
In our opinion, space exploration can be environmentally friendly and worrying about its effects on the environment shouldn’t be a reason to stop exploring.
What do you think? Are these ideas for making space travel more ‘green’ plausible? Is space travel any worse for the environment than aeroplane travel here on Earth? It is a reason to stop doing it?