spacex-emissions

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is revolutionizing the way we think about space travel. The company has used groundbreaking rocket innovations to make shipping equipment we all rely on into space. The company sends 10-20 rockets into space each year but Elon has recently revealed aspirations of making that number much higher.  It also stands to reason that between Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, NASA and other, emerging non-US space agencies, the number of rocket launches will only increase each year.

There are so many reasons to be excited by this development. But one thing we’ll need to consider as space travel becomes more regular is how these vehicles might affect the Earth’s atmosphere at scale. Of course, right now we want to be clear: these emissions represent a tiny fraction of the human race’s yearly CO2 output. But if 1000’s of rockets per month carrying scientific or governmental payloads as well as a steady stream of space tourists: the environmental impact will be much greater.

As data nerds, we love doing the math on these types of issues. So we found the numbers we’ll need to crunch to determine the potential relative impact of these rapidly increasing rocket launches on Earth’s atmosphere.  Here are the raw numbers:

The Falcon 9 B burns 29,600 gallons (112,184 Kg) of highly refined kerosene  (Source, Source)
3.0 Kg of CO2 goes into the atmosphere per Kg of Kerosene burned (Source)
112,184 Kg x 3 Kg / CO2 = roughly 336,552 Kg of CO2 per Falcon 9 launch. (Source)

 

336.5 Kg of CO2 is equivalent to the average emissions of:

 

395 Transatlantic Flights (One-Way, avg of ~850Kg/flight, source)

OR

73 Cars (4600 Kg/y per, source)

 

If 1000 rockets were to launch the total output of CO2 would be equal to:

 

395,000 Transatlantic Flights worth of CO2

OR

73,000 Cars worth of CO2 emitted

 

Again, this reporting is not meant as a nay-say on rocket launches or space travel in general. But as rocket launches become more common and space tourism accelerates in you, the reader’s lifetime as most experts predict– companies such as SpaceX will need to consider the environmental impact of their launches at scale. They’ll also want to consider using alternate fuels or upgraded technology to that end.  The numbers above might seem shocking but even 1000 rockets would pale in comparison to other various forms of transportation.

Other Data Sources for this Piece:

EPA.gov

The Smithsonian

The New York Times

Popular Flight Paths (CT)

The Guardian (flight CO2 Calculator)