SpaceX Starship explosion spread particulate matter for miles

SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket self-destructs after its launch from the company’s Boca Chica launchpad on a brief uncrewed test flight near Brownsville, Texas, U.S. April 20, 2023 in a still image from video. – Spacex | Reuters

By Lora Kolodny,
Published by CNBC, 24 April 2023

  • Researchers are scrambling to assess health and environmental impacts of SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy test flight last week, which spread particulate matter far beyond the expected debris field.
  • The largest rocket ever built blew up in mid-flight, with no crew on board, leading the FAA to ground the Starship Super Heavy launch program pending a “mishap investigation.”
  • Environmental engineers and advocates are concerned the ash- and sand-like particulate matter could hurt people’s respiratory health, and could irreparably harm endangered species in the area.

SpaceX launched the largest rocket ever built for the first time on Thursday from its Boca Chica, Texas, spaceport. The Starship spacecraft, designed to fly people on a Mars mission someday, lifted off the launch pad then blew up in mid-flight, with no crew on board.

Now, residents and researchers are scrambling to assess the impact of the explosion on local communities, their health, habitat and wildlife including endangered species. Of primary concern is the large amount of sand- and ash-like particulate matter and heavier debris kicked up by the launch. The particulate emissions spread far beyond the expected debris field.

As a result of the explosion, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded the company’s Starship Super Heavy launch program pending results of a “mishap investigation,” part of standard practice, according to an email from the agency sent to CNBC after the launch. No injuries or public property damage had yet been reported to the agency as of Friday.

SpaceX did not immediately return a request for comment.

Not in the plan

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, speaking publicly on Twitter Spaces on April 16 ahead of the test flight, acknowledged that a vehicle with 33 engines is akin to “a box of grenades,” and that the Starship vehicle was not likely to reach orbit but was likely to explode.

However, Musk and SpaceX did not accurately predict that their launchpad would be destroyed, nor that particulate matter would rain down on residents and habitat as far away as Port Isabel, a town about six miles from the launchpad, and South Padre Island, a few miles up the coast from the site.

Images captured during the test flight show that the SpaceX launch pad also exploded, with concrete chunks from it flying in multiple directions leaving behind a giant crater underneath. According to Dave Cortez, the Lone Star chapter director for the Sierra Club, a 501c4 environmental advocacy group, “Concrete shot out into the ocean, and risked hitting the fuel storage tanks which are these silos adjacent to the launch pad.” 

Jared Margolis, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said that in an environmental assessment – which SpaceX completed to obtain a launch license – the company told the FAA and other agencies that in the event of an “anomaly” they expected debris would fall within a limited, 700-acre area surrounding the launch site. 

That would translate to a one-square-mile debris field, with debris emanating about three-quarters of a mile away from the site, he said, referencing SpaceX environmental site assessment documents that are public record.

In reality, following the test flight and explosion, people in Port Isabel reported broken windows in their businesses, shaking windows at their homes, and dust and particulate matter that coated their homes, schools and land unexpectedly, according to Cortez.

Port Isabel is a mainland town near the SpaceX spaceport, and across from the South Padre Island offshore, which also got a share of particulate matter, according to correspondence between researchers and residents shared with CNBC.

It’s not yet known whether the ash- and sand-like particulate matter is dangerous to touch or breathe in and what effect it could have on soil health, Cortez and Margolis both noted.

One industry chronicler who reported locally on the launch, Lavie Ohana, wrote that the launch was also “one of the loudest” she had ever witnessed, “with shockwaves that just felt like getting punched over and over and over.”

Effects on endangered species

Margolis said the Center for Biological Diversity is worried about the effects of the noise, particulate and heavier debris on endangered species that make their home in the area, including the piping plover, red knot, jaguarundi, ocelot populations and sea turtles including the Kemp’s Ridley, which nests on the beaches of Boca Chica and is one of the most critically endangered sea turtles in the world.

February through June is the nesting season for the Kemp’s Ridley.

National Wildlife Refuge lands, which are very near the launch pad, are designated critical habitat for the piping plover, he emphasized. 

Cortez added that Sierra Club members have been especially worried about human health impacts and how the aftermath of the explosion may limit people’s ability to get outdoors, whether to fish for their dinner, enjoy the beach or take a hike in the many parks and protected wildlife areas close to Starbase.

Health concerns

The impacts of particulate emissions from the SpaceX launch won’t be understood until samples are evaluated and the debris field measured comprehensively.

But in general, particulate emissions are regulated under the federal Clean Air Act and Texas state law. 

Eric Roesch, an environmental engineer who has been tracking the impact of SpaceX facilities and launches on his blog, ESGHound, said that particulate emissions are associated with pulmonary and respiratory issues, and are considered a high priority pollutant by the EPA. Health impacts depend upon exposure time and quantity, as well as particle size, and contents of the particulate, he added.

Roesch has been warning the public for months that the FAA and SpaceX had not been careful enough in their environmental analysis to comfortably proceed with a launch of this magnitude. He said, “The possibility of a widely dispersed plume of emissions was not disclosed by the FAA or SpaceX, during the initial environmental permitting and approval process.”

Margolis and Cortez both noted that roads had been damaged, with gates and cordons closed immediately following the SpaceX Starship test flight. That meant wildlife biologists and other field researchers could not immediately pass through to study the full scale of any damage that occurred in a nearby wildlife refuge area – though some were reportedly on location by Saturday April 22. 

One concern is that evidence of harm to endangered species could be removed from the site before regulators have an opportunity to assess it, Margolis said.

A newly hatched piping plover chick stands next to one of its parents, Monty or Rose, at Montrose Beach on July 10, 2021.
John J. Kim | Tribune News Service | Getty Images

Getting back to flight

Elon Musk wrote in a tweet on April 21, 2023, after the test flight: “3 months ago, we started building a massive water-cooled, steel plate to go under the launch mount. Wasn’t ready in time & we wrongly thought, based on static fire data, that Fondag would make it through 1 launch. Looks like we can be ready to launch again in 1 to 2 months.”

CNBC asked the FAA what it will take for SpaceX to be authorized to conduct another test flight or launch of the Starship Super Heavy vehicle from Boca Chica, Texas. 

The agency said in an email that a return to flight for the Starship Super Heavy will require the FAA to decide that “any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety.” 

Because they are still gathering information, the FAA and the Texas regional office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were not able to answer questions yet about any environmental impacts of the Thursday launch. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

However, the FAA told CNBC via e-mail that the explosion activated something called an “anomaly response plan,” which is part of a 2022 Programmatic Environmental Assessment completed by the company along with state and federal agencies, and that SpaceX has additional “environmental mitigations” they must complete before launching again. The plan “was triggered by debris entering adjacent properties,” the FAA noted.

After completing the list of tasks in the plan and mitigations SpaceX will need to ask the FAA to amend their launch license, to gain clearance for another test flight.

The Center for Biological Diversity attorney, Jared Margolis, believes the FAA requirements will be minimal and easy for the company to fulfill, but not ultimately effective in safeguarding local residents’ wellbeing and endangered species.

He explained, “We are not against space exploration or this company. But while we are looking to the stars, we should not readily sacrifice communities, habitat and species.”

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