Menu Menu

Space launches are ‘profoundly’ polluting Earth’s atmosphere

A team of researchers has traced atmospheric pollution to types of metal found in rockets and satellites. Is our ozone layer again under threat?

In our quest for knowledge and cosmic expansion, is the Space Age leaving dirty fingerprints on our Earth’s stratosphere?

A team of researchers recently discovered an abundance of pollutant aerosols lingering within the second layer of the planet’s atmosphere – the majority of which are directly traceable to metals used in rocket and satellite launches.

Once considered the ‘pristine area of the atmosphere,’ our stratosphere’s chemistry is now being altered by man-made materials and the future implications are largely unknown.

Since this is home to our planet’s ozone layer, the gaseous shield which protects all life from deadly solar radiation, this is potentially a problem and blissful ignorance will not suffice.

Detailed in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, tools hitched to the nose of a WB-57 research plane found evidence of aluminium, lithium, copper, and lead which likely came from spacecrafts and devices re-entering our atmosphere in a fiery blaze.

Credit: Purdue University / John Underwood

Somewhat alarmingly, nearly 10% of large sulfuric acid particles – which help to buffer the ozone layer – recorded 11.8 miles above ground level contained aluminium and other metals synonymous with space travel.

Yup, temperatures in excess of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit will do that.

Given humanity’s bumpy relationship with the ozone, and the fact it’s finally en route to a complete recovery from our chlorofluorocarbons obsession of the 1980s, scientists are keen to ratify that we’re not repeating the mistakes of the past.

Without a sit-rep of the stratosphere’s overall condition, it’s concerning to think that an estimated 58,000 more satellites may reach orbit in just the next seven years. Scientists aren’t keen to put their hat on any exact consequences, but the term ‘profound’ is being tossed around.

Should these industry projections materialise, the next few decades could see half the stratosphere’s sulfuric acid particles corrupted by metals from re-entry. How stable the seemingly serene layer of our atmosphere would be then, nobody quite knows.

‘Changes to the atmosphere can be difficult to study and complex to understand,’ explains NASA research member Dan Cziczo.

‘What this research shows us is that the impact of human occupation and human spaceflight on the planet may be significant – perhaps more significant than we have yet imagined.’

While spacecraft launches and returns were once stories of global significance, front page exposure for the likes of ‘Sputnik’ and ‘Sojourner’ have now given way to a tide of corporations keen to exploit space for commercial gain, unbeknownst to most of us.

Tech tycoons like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson have already launched tens of thousands of satellites in recent years to build individual networks for the next stage of internet connectivity.

All the while, dead satellites and spacecraft debris is left to linger like the remains of a ship wreckage on the ocean floor. Low orbit space is incredibly cluttered, and the US has only recently issued its first ever fine for failing to dispose of a redundant project.

Establishing some form of order to the space race will be a tricky task – as the UN has already discovered – but understanding our impacts on the planet should unequivocally take priority.