Topics: Astronautics, Climate Change, Environment, Futurism, Global Warming, Mars, Spaceflight
When Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, he envisioned a greenhouse on Mars, not unlike the one later depicted in the 2015 blockbuster The Martian. Soon, his fantasy grew from a small-scale botanical experiment into a vision for a self-sustaining Martian city. In a speech at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in 2016, he argued his point. “History is going to bifurcate along with two directions. One path is we stay on earth forever and then there will be some eventual extinction event,” Musk says. “The alternative is to become a space-faring civilization and a multi-planet species, which, I hope you would agree, is the right way to go.”
Though Musk later clarified that the extinction event he referenced may take place millennia (or even eons) in the future, the conditions on earth today are becoming increasingly dangerous for human beings. Deadly heatwaves, food insecurity, and catastrophic natural disasters are a few of the hazards that we face as the planet continues to warm. Unfortunately, the Red Planet is a very long way from becoming a viable alternative home. While we measure carbon dioxide concentrations in parts per million on earth, Mars’ atmosphere contains 96% CO2, just one of a litany of logistical nightmares that Martian colonists would have to overcome.
In a perfect world, Musks’ dreams of extraterrestrial civilization could coexist with the eco-forward values that have driven ventures like Tesla’s solar program. But while SpaceX’s aspirations are in space, its operations have an undeniable impact at home. Unlike a Tesla sports car, SpaceX’s rockets aren’t propelled by electricity — they burn kerosene.
Carbon emissions from space launches are dwarfed by other sources of greenhouse gasses, but they could have an outsized impact on climate. The reason for this stems from one particular product of rocket propulsion: black carbon. These tiny chunks of crystalline carbon atoms are short-lived in the atmosphere, but highly absorptive of sunlight. On the Earth’s surface, black carbon from diesel, coal, and wood combustion poses a threat to environmental and public health, particularly in developing countries. But in the upper atmosphere, rocket engines are the sole source of black carbon. For years, scientists have warned that these emissions could have unpredictable effects on climate. Still, research on the topic has been frustratingly slow.
“We identified the issue with black carbon in 2010,” says Darin Toohey, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder. “The story comes and goes, but the basic players remain the same.”
Efforts to Colonize Mars Could Have a Negative Impact on Global Health, Gabe Allen, Discover Magazine