AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the new space race heats up, more and more rockets are heading to the stars. All that space travel could be bad news for life on Earth.
A recent report published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that space travel could be damaging the protective layer of our atmosphere: the ozone layer.
According to the report, kerosene-burning rocket engines emit black carbon into the stratosphere, where a layer of ozone exists. Ozone helps protect us from ultraviolet radiation.
NOAA said it expects 10 times more rocket launches over the next 20 years. It said if this occurs, the ozone layer would be damaged. Christopher Malone, lead author of the report and a researcher at NOAA’s Chemical Sciences Laboratory, said launches have tripled in the past few decades.
What is the ozone layer and what does it do?
Ozone is a type of gas in our atmosphere. According to National Geographic, there are only about three molecules of ozone for every 10 million molecules of air. Ozone absorbs radiation hitting the earth, protecting life on the blue marble.
Ultraviolet light, the type of radiation ozone absorbs, damages DNA. This can cause sunburns and cancer.
Over the past hundred years, the ozone layer has been getting thinner. This has been the result of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC). This molecule is found in refrigerants and plastic products.
In the 1970s, a hole in the ozone layer was detected over Antarctica. The hole had little impact on people but generated interest in the ozone layer. In 1987, CFC was phased out of use by the Montreal Protocol. Since then, the hole in the layer has recovered.
What do rockets do to the ozone layer?
NOAA researchers used a climate model to determine the effects the new space race will have on the ozone layer. NOAA said 1,000 tons of black carbon, aka soot, is released by rockets each year.
The researchers said increased rocket activity could cause the stratosphere to get hotter, around one to four degrees Fahrenheit. This increase would impact global circulation patterns. A similar warming was responsible for the 2021 Texas winter storm.
The researchers also ran simulations where more and less rockets were launched. Results were as expected. Less rockets equaled less damage, while more rockets caused more damage.
Not all space agencies and corporations use the same rockets. NOAA said it is not sure how much soot these different engines emit.