The environmental impact of emissions from space launches: A comprehensive review

Abstract

With the increasing accessibility of commercial space flight, the environmental impacts of space launches will become increasingly significant in the coming years. Here, for the first time, a review is presented of the environmental impacts of space launches, specifically of emissions from commonly used solid and liquid rocket propellants. While there are a number of environmental impacts resulting from the launch of space vehicles, the depletion of stratospheric ozone is the most studied and most immediately concerning. Solid rocket motors are the subject of most of the environmental studies on rocket launches, while the now more commonly used liquid rocket propellants are underrepresented in the literature. The limited studies of emissions from rocket engines using liquid propellent reveal that while they do result in stratospheric ozone loss, solid rocket motors are responsible for orders of magnitude greater loss. The comparison of commonly used propellants highlights the environmental trade-offs that must be made when selecting a launch system. This review highlights the need for further study of the cumulative impacts that frequent space launches have on all areas of the environment, including global climate, ecosystem toxicity, and human toxicity, and with consideration given to all commonly used propellants, to ensure that the impacts are well characterised and well understood before the number of launches greatly increases.

Graphical abstract

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