The Final Frontier: A New Polluting Industry Takes Flight The Final Frontier: A New Polluting Industry Takes Flight
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The Final Frontier: A New Polluting Industry Takes Flight

by Adele Peters

May 3, 2013

Though spaceplanes create carbon dioxide, the biggest impact will come from black carbon, or, as it’s more commonly known, soot. While commercial rockets run on kerosene and liquid oxygen, companies like Virgin Galactic plan to use "hybrid" rocket engines. Not to be confused with hybrid cars, these engines have nothing to do with electricity—they run on synthetic hydrocarbon and nitrous oxide. The engine makes the spaceplanes cheaper to run than typical rockets, but the new spacecraft also emit substantially more black carbon. 

A 2010 study, funded in part by NASA, showed exactly how serious that black carbon could be, with computer models showing the potential for as much as a degree of warming over the poles. The study's authors say it's not exact, since the only way to get hard data will be to fly the rockets—but it indicates the potential of the problem. Virgin has acted as an environmental leader in many other ways, like helping design extra-lightweight planes and spacecraft to save energy, and even building a LEED-certified spaceport. They plan to use their rockets for environmental research. But the challenge of black carbon still hasn't been solved, and flights are moving ahead. 

Is six minutes in space, for a handful of very wealthy individuals, worth the potential risk to our atmosphere? 

Images courtesy of Virgin Galactic.

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The Final Frontier: A New Polluting Industry Takes Flight