In mid-April, we wrote about the rise in reusable launch vehicles and the positive impact this will have on the space industry. While much of our focus is on terrestrial efforts, we can’t overlook the environmental impact space exploration and satellite launches can have.
On that note, let’s dive into the ways space launches can become greener, and what this might look like in the future.
Reusable rockets are obviously a good starting point for sustainability. As we mentioned previously, not all elements can currently be reused, but something is better than nothing. Costs are an obvious factor driving the rise of reusable rockets, but the sustainability factor is arguably just as important.
But how do we take this a step further? One option is to switch to 3D printing, which is what launch company Orbex is attempting. It’s designed a custom-made industrial 3D printer to produce its rocket engines. This will help to reduce waste and production time, but will also help reduce overall weight, making the rocket more fuel-efficient.
Fuel efficiency is, of course, another major element in sustainable launches. Orbex is another good example of what this could look like. Its rocket uses BioLPG, an ultra-low carbon fuel produced by Calor. The two companies announced their partnership in late 2021 and have already tested the fuel against traditional kerosene rocket fuel.
Research found that Orbex’s rocket could produce up to 96% less emissions than comparable rocket launches. This is against horizontally launched rockets; against vertical launches, the figure is 86%, although this is still very good.
Orbex plans to take its sustainability a step further, though. It plans to offset carbon emissions from rocket production and transport, and its launch site, Sutherland Space Port, will be entirely carbon neutral during production and operation.
There’s no denying that Orbex is setting a pretty high bar for sustainability in the space industry. A 96% reduction in carbon emissions is a massive benchmark and, provided it’s viable, it’ll be interesting to see what impact this has on the space industry as a whole.
An important distinction, too, is where the carbon reduction comes from. Orbex’s BioLPG creates less carbon during the production process rather than the launch itself, although, as the study results show, this does have an impact. Fuel production is arguably a bigger concern for now, as there currently aren’t really enough rocket launches for launch emissions to be a massive concern.
This is the logic picked up by numerous other companies, including Skyora, which is developing a system for making kerosene from plastic. Like Orbex, its plan is to reduce carbon emissions during the production process more than the launch itself.
Until recently, there hasn’t been much interest in moving away from petroleum-based kerosene. But the space industry must now assess ways it can become more sustainable, both during rocket production and launches, and in space. It’ll be interesting to see how different rocket fuels develop in the coming years, and what impact this could have on larger, more well-established launch companies.