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Commercial space flights could have big climate impact


The soot from the low-cost rockets that commercial spaceflight companies like Virgin Galactic plan to use could be as a big a contributor to global warming as all other commercial airline flights combined in just 10 years. Commercial spaceflight companies are gearing up to take space tourists on low-orbit excursions and to ferry supplies to the International Space Station. By 2021, they will have taken as may as 13,000 tourists on space flights, a tiny fraction of the number of global air travel passengers. Most commercial rockets use a relatively low-cost combination of synthetic hydrocarbons and nitrous oxide which create large amounts of soot, or black carbon, during combustion. And with hundreds of commercial spaceflights possible each year in the near future, that could add up to thousands of tons of black carbon in the upper atmosphere. The rockets produce little carbon dioxide, a significant greenhouse gas, but the soot can have similar effects at high altitudes, where it can stay in the atmosphere for years.