Virgin Galactic, the nascent space tourism company that plans to send paying passengers on suborbital jaunts into space, has responded to a study that suggests space tourist flights would pollute the upper atmosphere.
“The research team, led by Martin Ross, an atmospheric scientist at the Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles, California, drew some potentially damaging conclusions, predicting the particles of black soot emitted by spacecraft could change the surface temperature of the earth in some places by as much as 0.7 degrees celsius. Those concerned about global warming might consider that a good thing, but the earth is a complex system, and any temperature change – whether up or down – should be considered dangerous. In any case, the report also warned that other parts of the earth could warm with average temperatures in Antarctica, for example, rising by up to 0.8 degrees.”
Will Whitehorn, the President of Virgin Galactic, was quite caustic in his response:
“The report has Whitehorn hopping mad. ‘The research was fundamentally wrong,’ he says. ‘If you had a Virgin Galactic program running for ten years, if you assumed that we weren’t using biobutinol (which we will) we’re talking about less environmental impact over ten years than 1.5 shuttle launches.’
“That’s a significant discrepancy, given Ross’s estimate that conventional large-scale rocketry, as used by the Space Shuttle and European Ariane programs, are roughly a tenth as damaging as the modern approach. Unlike Virgin Galactic’s hybrid engines, which mix a solid fuel with a liquid oxidant, these vehicles rely heavily on liquid engines, burning hydrogen and oxygen.
“‘Ariane uses liquid hydrogen and oxygen and produces water. The shuttle engine is the same,’ agrees Pat Norris, Chairman of the Royal Aeronautical Society Space Group and Space & Defence Strategy Manager at Logica, which is busily assessing the environmental impact of space launches for a European client, and which should have an official statement ready in about six months. But informally, he confirms, ‘those are as green as you can get in terms of the exhaust fumes that the rockets produce.’
“The only caveat to that are the solid rocket boosters – effectively very large fireworks that, when ignited, won’t stop burning – that are sometimes added to such rockets for heavy payloads. The boosters disperse their soot relatively low down in the atmosphere, where it can be rained back down to earth, Norris points out.
“So why the discrepancy between Aerospace Corporation and Whitehorn’s own environmental assessment? ‘They never contacted us, and never spoke about the fuel that we were using,’ Whitehorn complains. ‘We are not allowed to discuss because of ITAR rules [International Traffic in Arms Regulations] exactly what the rocket motor was. But we’re not using rubber. We’re using a form of recycled nylon.’
“Virgin Galactic’s own website says that its hybrid engine is using a ‘rubber compound’, with a nitrous oxide oxidiser, but Whitehorn was quoted as saying that the firm was looking into nylon fuels at the spaceport opening ceremony.
“Ross contends that the research team contacted Virgin, and spoke to Whitehorn directly.’We talked to them to get their help and make ground measurements,’ he says, adding that the researchers wanted to put instruments on Virgin’s aircraft, and perhaps use video documentation of the launches to observe emissions. ‘There are a lot of ways that they could help us out and we talked to them, and that communication just ended and so we pressed on,’ Ross shrugs. In the absence of mission-specific data, Ross’s team ended up using a generic model for the predictions used in the study.”
The controversy suggests that two things went wrong. First, it seems that Virgin Galactic was not up to date in informing the public, including the scientific community, about what kind of fuel it proposed to use. This left the company open to attacks based on the alleged environmental damage its operations would entail.
Second, Martin Ross and his team appear to be guilty of publishing a study based on insufficient or even misleading data. Ross can pretend that his study was an academic exercise based on a generic model. But such studies are often used by politicians and government bureaucrats, who are less than caring about the accuracy of such research, to regulate or even squelch private business.
The embryonic business of space tourism is especially vulnerable to this kind of meddling. A government official, looking upon an enterprise that essentially would send the well-heeled and the adventurous on sub-orbital joy rides, would conclude that that kind of thing was optional, something that could easily be regulated out of existence if there is the hint of environmental harm being caused by it.
The government bureaucrat is not likely to realize that sub orbital barnstorming for the rich and famous is simply one step in the development of a true space transportation industry. Such an industry would take paying customers to private space stations in low Earth orbit, and eventually the Moon and other worlds, creating untold wealth, economic growth, and employment.
The number of industries, from coal mining to agriculture to energy generation, that have had to contend with the machinations of environmentalists is legion. Many of these controversies are based on either dubious science or else a warped sense of priorities, such as an effort to save an obscure endangered species, resulting in the destruction of the agricultural industry of an entire region of California.
It is a good thing, therefore, that Virgin Galactic has responded to the Martin Ross study forcefully and that Ross has been forced to backtrack, albeit just a little. Ross has suggested that he wants to “work with” Virgin Galactic and other commercial space firms. One wonders if consulting contracts from those same companies are not far in Ross’s future.
Sources: Space tourism – a final frontier worth exploring? Danny Bradbury, The Guardian, November 23rd, 2010
Will Fears of Climate Change Keep Space Tourism on the Launch Pad? Mark R. Whittington, Associated Content, October 24th, 2010