Home Sciences Pollution from space rockets reaches the top of the Earth’s atmosphere

Pollution from space rockets reaches the top of the Earth’s atmosphere

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Researchers at the University of Nicosia (Cyprus) have evaluated the potential impact of a rocket launch on air pollution to understand heat and mass transfer and rapid mixing of combustion by-products for altitudes up to 67 kilometers in the atmosphere and have found that pollution from rocket engine exhaust gases extends high into Earth’s atmosphere, as published in the journal ‘Physics of Fluids’.

Reusable space technology has led to a increased space transportation at lower cost, as has been popularized by commercial space flights by companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. What is not well understood, however, is that emissions from rocket boosters create significant heating and compositional changes in the atmosphere.

“Improving the understanding of rocket emissions requires modeling and simulation of the fluid dynamics of rocket exhaust gases into the atmosphere,” says Dimitris Drikakis, co-author of the study.

The team modeled the exhaust gases and the developing plume at various altitudes along a typical current standard rocket trajectory. They did it as a prototypical example of a two-stage rocket to carry people and payloads to Earth orbit and beyond.

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“We show that rocket pollution should not be underestimatedas frequent rocket launches in the future could have a significant cumulative effect on Earth’s climate,” said co-author Ioannis Kokkinakis.

The researchers found that the production of thermal nitrogen oxides (NOx), components of flue gases, can remain high up to altitudes with ambient atmospheric pressure above or even slightly below the nozzle outlet pressure, i.e. below an altitude of approximately 10 kilometers.

At the same time, the mass of carbon dioxide emitted when the rocket rises one kilometer high in the mesosphere is equivalent to that contained in 26 cubic kilometers of atmospheric air at the same altitude.

They verified that the impact on the atmosphere locally and momentarily in the mesosphere can be significant. While air currents will gradually transport and mix CO2 from exhaust gases throughout the atmosphere, eventually returning CO2 to its natural levels, the timescale over which this occurs is unclear.

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Scientists believe that there might still be a certain number of rocket launches above which mesospheric carbon dioxide could accumulate over timethereby increasing natural levels and affecting our climate.

Their results suggest that, in the worst case, enough NOx could be produced during the time it takes for the rocket to reach an altitude of 10 kilometers to contaminate more than two cubic kilometers of atmospheric air with a concentration of NOx, which, according to World Health Organizationwould be at a dangerous level for human health.

“We hope that commercial flight companies, such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and New Shepard, and their associated engine manufacturers, will take these effects into account in future designs,” says Drikakis.

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Environment section contact: crisisclimatica@prensaiberica.es

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