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Surge Desk

Commercial Space Travel: Not All That Green, Study Says

Oct 25, 2010 – 10:50 AM
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Dave Thier

Dave Thier Contributor

(Oct. 25) -- Last week, a science fiction vision of the future seemed to get one step closer when Virgin Group's Sir Richard Branson unveiled a completed runway at the new Virgin Galactic Spaceport in the New Mexico desert. But some scientists are now worrying that the environmental impact of private spacecraft might make the future less "The Fifth Element" and more "Mad Max."

A recent study published in Geophysical Research Letters warns that the effects of these particular spacecraft on climate change will be even worse than the baseline one might assume from blasting tourists into space. Their engines produce more black carbon than normal engines, and if the company launches 1,000 commercial spacecraft a year, the study says, they could deposit a layer of soot high in the stratosphere that could affect ozone production and cause dramatic effects in just 10 years, the study says.

"There are fundamental limits to how much material human beings can put into orbit without having a significant impact," lead author Martin Ross said, according to the Daily Mail.

Branson is emphasizing the research benefits of the $198 million taxpayer-funded spaceport as well as its symbolic power, calling it the beginning of a "second space age."

Tickets on the new flights will cost $200,000 for a 2 1/2-hour flight, which includes about five minutes of weightlessness. The price tag, while steep for most people, is nothing compared to the $28 million the cash-strapped Russian space program required to take the first wave of space tourists.

For most Americans, however, these sorts of distractions remain in the realm of fiction -- the country is still struggling to pull itself out of a recession, and the income gap between rich and poor is the highest it's been in decades.

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