The atmospheric layers from the ground up to the boundary with space, showing natural phenomena, human inputs and resultant impacts. These human inputs impact the troposphere (by enhancing climate change), the stratosphere (through ozone loss from multiple causes), the mesosphere (by influencing metal chemistry and accumulation and increasing noctilucent clouds), and the thermosphere (by likely causing contraction which will impact orbiting satellites).
Credit: Jamie D. Shutler, et al.

Rocket emissions and rubbish from spacecraft falling out of orbit are having increasingly detrimental effects on global atmospheric chemistry.

The growing scale and pace of space activities may lead to new unforeseen impacts on the environment and climate.

What is now needed is improved monitoring of the situation, as well as regulation to create an environmentally sustainable space industry.

These are findings from new research just published in the journal, Nature Geoscience.

Lead author of the paper, “Atmospheric impacts of the space industry require oversight” is Jamie Shutler, associate professor of Earth observation in the Center for Geography and Environmental Science, College of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Exeter, Cornwall.

Wanted: policy and legal frameworks

Shutler and colleagues note that focused research is required now to build the policy and legal frameworks necessary to support a successful and more environmentally sustainable space industry.

“The collective influences on the global atmosphere from space activities remain unquantified, making it impossible to currently understand and evaluate their environmental impact,” the research paper explains. “There is now an urgent need to direct research and policy decisions towards quantifying and minimizing the space industry’s impact on the global atmosphere.”

Global space industry

The paper underscores the fact that the global space industry is estimated to be annually worth $350 billion and expected to reach more than $1 trillion by 2040.

Given that the industry has a heavy reliance on rockets, the launch rate is likely to quadruple within the next four years, with agencies and companies including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic look to serve exploration, tourism and satellite markets.

Credit: SpaceX/StarLink

“These activities are now actively influencing all layers of the global atmosphere; and while these impacts are likely to increase with time, the consequences for global climate and weather are largely unknown,” Shutler and colleagues point out.

Furthermore, the reduction in satellite costs has led to the development of large satellite constellations.

Once complete, these constellations of spacecraft will result in a constant flow of de-orbiting debris as craft die and are replaced. “This debris could double the annual injection of aerosol particle mass into the mesosphere,” the paper explains, thereby increasing the amount of aluminium particles that can reach the stratosphere where they encourage ozone loss.

To access the paper – “Atmospheric impacts of the space industry require oversight” – go to:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-022-01001-5

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