Richard Branson's trip to space this month aboard a Virgin Galactic spaceship was meant to be a triumphant homecoming after years of waiting. Instead, the trip drew widespread criticism for its carbon footprint.
The developing space tourism sector faces severe concerns about its environmental effect, with Jeff Bezos scheduled to fly on a Blue Origin rocket on July 20 and Elon Musk's SpaceX planning an all-civilian orbital trip in September.
Currently, rocket launches do not occur frequently enough to cause substantial pollution.
"In comparison to other human activities or even commercial aircraft, carbon dioxide emissions are completely minuscule," NASA's senior climate advisor Gavin Schmidt told AFP.
Potential Long-Term Damages
However, other scientists are concerned about the potential for long-term harm as the business expands, notably affecting the ozone layer in the high atmosphere, which is currently little understood.
Virgin Galactic, which has been chastised in op-eds on CNN and Forbes and on social media, for flying its wealthy creator to space in a fossil-fuel-guzzling spacecraft for a few minutes, claims that its carbon emissions are comparable to a business-class flight from London to New York.
In a statement to AFP, the business claimed it "has already taken efforts to offset the carbon emissions from its test flights and is evaluating possibilities to offset the carbon emissions for future passenger trips, as well as decrease our supply chain's carbon footprint."
According to an estimate published in The Conversation by French astrophysicist Roland Lehoucq and colleagues, although transatlantic flights transport hundreds of passengers, Virgin's emissions come out to roughly 4.5 tonnes per passenger in a six-passenger trip.
Darin Toohey, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told AFP, "The issue here is truly one of the disproportionate repercussions."
"I grew up watching the space program, and it was that that got me interested in science," he added. "However, if someone gave me a free flight, I would be extremely hesitant to accept it because I would know that my personal footprint is much greater than it should be."
The SpaceShipTwo of Virgin Galactic runs on a form of synthetic rubber that is burned in nitrous oxide, a strong greenhouse gas.
The fuel injects black carbon into the upper stratosphere at the height of 30-50 kilometers (18-30 miles).
Once in the atmosphere, these particles may have various effects, ranging from reflecting sunlight and triggering a nuclear winter to speeding up chemical reactions that deplete the ozone layer, which protects people from dangerous radiation.
"We might be at a hazardous position," Toohey said, adding that more scientific research into the consequences is needed before the launches become more common.
Virgin has stated that it plans to operate 400 flights each year.
According to a recent article by scientist Martin Ross of Aerospace, which Bezos' firm plugged on Twitter, Blue Origin's spaceplanes are far cleaner than Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo spaceplanes.
Like those by Virgin and Blue Origin, suborbital launches have a negligible impact in contrast to orbital rockets.
Space X Launch
In September, SpaceX will launch four private individuals into space using their Falcon 9 rocket, which, according to estimates, emits the equivalent of 395 transatlantic flights' worth of carbon emissions.
"We are living in a climate-change age, and launching an activity that raises emissions as part of a tourist activity is not good timing," said Annette Toivonen, author of "Sustainable Space Tourism."
The world is considerably more conscious of the climate catastrophe now than when these companies were formed in the early 2000s, which may motivate corporations to search for methods to reduce pollution through cleaner technology to stay ahead of the problem.
"Who wants to be a space tourist if they can't tell people they're a space tourist?" Toivonen, a lecturer at Finland's Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, said.
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