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Black carbon casts doubt on space tourism

Posting in Aerospace

Will black carbon cause the death of space tourism before it has taken off?

One way of marketing space tourism is the proud declaration that it can be more eco-friendly than your typical flight from London to New York. Virgin Galactic uses this byline when touting its SpaceShip2, and XCOR Aerospace currently sells tickets for sub-orbital flights for $95,000 a piece.

Space tourism is expected to be become an industry worth roughly $650 million per year with 13,000 potential customers, according to research firm Futron. Private firms are looking more closely at how space tourism could be the next trend for adventurous travelers with money to burn, and if successful, launches could rise from 70 a year to over 1,000. XCOR, for example, wants to launch four vehicles a day in the future.

However, this also means that black carbon will be shot into the stratosphere -- beginning five miles above the earth -- thousands of times a year.

Black carbon is particle matter which absorbs visible light from the sun. A recent study said that if large amounts of black carbon are propelled into the stratosphere, then this would absorb 100,000 times as much energy as the CO2 emitted by rockets. The matter -- which is formed by incomplete combustion of fossil fuel, biofuel and biomass, can absorb far more energy than CO2, is able to linger for five to 10 years, and far more is produced in rockets than in standard aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and industry itself say that the effects of black carbon are currently unclear, but scientists still fret that the second largest contributor to global warming could wreak environmental havoc in the stratosphere.

The extra heat could potentially cause additional changes to our climate. George Nield, the F.A.A.'s associate administrator for commercial space transportation, wrote in an email that "black carbon is known to be a short-term climate forcer, research on the potential climate change impacts of black carbon from rockets is in a very early stage, and any projections of impacts are speculative."

Read More: PopSci

Image credit: Virgin Galactic

— By on May 16, 2013, 3:49 AM PST

Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure