The opening answers you | Do missiles pollute?

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Natalie Collard

Natalie Collard
Journalism

Don’t you think that these huge rockets that NASA sends into the atmosphere are one of the main causes of pollution? Aren’t we spoiling the atmosphere trying to figure out what’s going on on Mars and the Moon?

Francine Davis

NASA’s SLS rocket has been waiting since August 29. It has been postponed a few times and is supposed to take place somewhere in November, if all goes well.

This mission, dubbed Artemis I, is the first of three. The ultimate goal is to send humans – including the first woman – to the moon no later than 2025.

All this is very exciting, but we can still ask ourselves questions about the effects of space travel, especially since wealthy businessmen – along with NASA science missions – wealthy businessmen – Lalibert├ęs, Bezos, Branson, etc. Paying for their own trip to space in the millions of dollars.

Pollutants, these spaceflights?

It all depends on the rocket, says Richard Bauderault, associate professor in the department of chemical engineering at Montreal Polytechnic.

The majority of NASA’s rockets run on hydrogen. Thus, the white smoke that can be observed in its wake is water, quite simply. It is true that water vapor is a greenhouse gas, but these quantities are very limited, according to this expert, which have little effect on global warming.

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What about the private rockets for SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk that dreams of going to Mars? SpaceX is also preparing to launch the Starship spacecraft, dubbed Super Heavy, equipped with 33 highly polluting engines. Note that Musk would like to share his Starship on NASA’s Artemis missions.

These rockets operate on a mixture of liquid methane and oxygen. When burning methane is released into the atmosphere, it forms carbon dioxide2, a greenhouse gas. Worse still, adds Richard Boderault, the methane that SpaceX buys in the US may come in part from shale gas extraction. So it’s more polluting, because exploiting methane generates leaks during its journey. This manufacturing process exhaust is 86 times more harmful than CO2 emissions2. However, Professor Bauderault points out that methane produces far fewer greenhouse gases than burning gasoline or diesel.

For comparison, it is estimated that a transatlantic flight using kerosene produces about 1 ton of carbon dioxide2 for each passenger. You should know that kerosene produces 4 to 16 times more greenhouse gas emissions than methane. If we agree that an average flight includes 300 people (passengers and crew), the total emissions would be somewhere between 1,200 and 6,000 tons of CO2-eq.2. A SpaceX rocket launching? About 1000 tons!

So the missile’s impact on global warming is less than it does in a single transatlantic flight on a full jumbo jet.

We can hope that the knowledge that space exploration generates a large offset for its emissions.

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