UK’s Plans To Reduce the Environmental Impact of the Growing Rocket Launch Industry

By Emma Thorpe,
Published by Orbital Today, 29 October 2021

The 21st-century Earth is choking on carbon emissions, and today’s rocket launch industry adds its share to this phenomenon. But how do rockets affect the environment? The more carbon accumulates in the atmosphere, the more it acts as thermal insulation for the planet. Radiation from the Sun freely passes through the atmosphere, but the return of heat slows down, which is why the Earth’s surface starts to heat up, the ice melts, the climate and species composition of flora and fauna change. All this may ultimately end in the death of all living things. Besides, one needs to ask an equally important question – how much pollution does a rocket launch create? Considering the answer makes many countries start the fight for carbon neutrality and switch to greener types of energy and fuels.

The main technogenic sources of carbon dioxide are industrial enterprises, deforestation, and vehicles. Of the latter, cars and airplanes pollute the atmosphere the most. So, how much pollution does a rocket launch create? Today’s launchers emit only 1% of total aviation emissions into the upper atmosphere when burning fuel, but the growing activity of aerospace companies is starting to cause concern as to the environmental impact of rocket launches. So, are rockets bad for the environment?

The main reason for a ‘yes’ is the rapid growth in the number of launches and associated rocket launch pollution. Today, the average of monthly launches is ten, and this is not the limit. Dozens of private rockets are being built, new spaceports are opening, and the demand for satellites in orbit is growing. This, in turn, increases the environmental impact of rocket launches.

The European countries are joining the space race of the USA, China, and Russia. In particular, the UK plans to open a local launch market in the next two years. What measures does the country take to reduce the environmental impact of rocket launches? Most importantly, how do rockets affect the environment?

Environmental impact of space industry

So, how do rockets affect the environment? Each rocket launch means hundreds of tonnes of fuel burned. For example, to put 60 tonnes of payload into orbit, SpaceX Falcon Heavy must burn 411 tonnes of fuel, and the Saturn 5 rocket needs 2,000 tonnes of fuel to deliver 140 tonnes of cargo.

In addition, there is the problem of spent stages being dropped to Earth and space debris that accumulates in orbits. Are rockets bad for the environment? According to scientists, this can provoke the so-called Kessler syndrome – a chain reaction from the collision of debris from spent satellites, which will make near space completely unusable.

But that’s not all when it comes to rocket launch environmental impact. The development of space tourism causes additional concerns about rocket launch pollution. This summer, private companies Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic demonstrated the possibility of suborbital tourist flights, which can completely replace passenger air travel in the next ten years. And that could cause a new carbon and rocket pollution problem. The question is – how much pollution does a rocket launch create? An average of 1-3 tonnes of fuel is burned per passenger on board during air travel, but rocket travels will require 200 to 300 tonnes of fuel for each crew member since there are only 4-6 people onboard.

Despite the dangers posed by the consequences of suborbital and orbital rocket launch environmental impact, these launches represent a prospect for economic growth in many countries, particularly Great Britain, which recently left the EU and is suffering the economic consequences of that. Experts believe that joining the space race will strongly boost the British economy and increase the kingdom’s geopolitical status. Nevertheless, the British government carefully evaluates potential risks and takes all necessary measures to minimise rocket launch pollution.

UK spaceports for rocket launches

In the next two years, the UK plans to open several spaceports. To reduce rocket launch environmental impact, the proposed sites were chosen according to the following criteria:

  • remoteness from densely populated residential and significant natural areas;
  • proximity to the sea for safe discharge of spent stages;
  • location taking into account the shortest possible trajectory of entering polar orbits (to reduce fuel consumption),
  • infrastructure availability for quick preparation and launch control.

Besides vertical launch sites in Sutherland and Shetland, the UK is preparing spaceports based on existing airports Glasgow Prestwick and Cornwall Newquay for air-launch systems. Virgin Orbit, which successfully launches rockets from a transport aircraft, has already expressed its willingness to cooperate.

Most importantly, all UK spaceports are designed for light and ultralight launchers with payloads of up to 1 tonne, which also significantly reduces the environmental impact of rocket pollution.

UK Rockets after Black Arrow: Skyrora and Orbex Space

Having its own spaceports logically implies launching its own rockets. Unfortunately, the first and so far the only British Black Arrow rocket was launched in 1971 from the Woomera spaceport in Australia, after which the programme was closed. Private Scottish company Skyrora and Danish/German owners of Orbex Space are now set to return Britain to space.

Orbex Space creates a 2-stage ultra-light Prime rocket with a payload of up to 150 kg. The company says Prime will use renewable biopropane fuel that reduces carbon emissions by 90% compared to classic hydrocarbons. The rocket will also be reusable and have an innovative low mass recovery and re-flight system, leaving no orbital debris.

Skyrora went even further in fighting rocket pollution. It offers a three-stage XL launch vehicle with a payload of up to 315 kg, powered by the innovative Ecosene fuel made from plastic waste. The company is also developing a Space Tug for removing space junk and maintaining operating satellites in orbit. That is, Skyrora fights pollution not only on Earth but also in space.

Both rockets should carry out their first launches in 2022 – possibly, from British spaceports.

Space tourism and the UK

The UK also hopes to become a hub for global space tourism. Its location makes the country an ideal hub for international travel. For example, getting from the British Isles to Australia will only take 40 minutes, while a direct plane flight requires 17 hours to cover this distance. Full-scale suborbital flights are planned by 2030. The question remains — are rockets bad for the environment? Well, one can only hope that by the time space travel is commonplace, the rocket launch impact on the environment will be fully safe.

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