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How Space Travel Impacts the Energy Industry

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Jane Marsh's picture
Editor Environment.co

Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.

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  • Jul 16, 2021 10:41 am GMT
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For the first time in decades, we’ve entered into a new space race. It feels like everyone is trying to be the first to do something. SpaceX claimed the title of the first commercial company to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, while Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic just recently became the first billionaire to take a ride to the very edge of outer space.

Everyone’s eyes are focused on the horizon as we try to reach the Moon, Mars, and beyond. It gets easy to forget how these massive rocket launches are affecting the planet they’re leaving behind. What sort of impact is space travel having on the energy industry, and how will that impact increase as we move forward?

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Rocket Launches and Carbon Footprints

Rocket launches may have us dreaming of life among the stars, but we can’t afford to overlook the impact they’re having right here at home.

Around 95% of a rocket’s weight is fuel, which burns off during launch. While engines based on liquid hydrogen and oxygen, like those found on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), don’t generate lots of greenhouse gasses, SpaceX’s Falcon rockets use liquid kerosene as one of their fuel components. With SpaceX launches ramping up in frequency to the point where they plan to launch every two weeks, the gases these launches generate could contribute to climate change.

Rocket launches also use a massive amount of water to reduce the noise, vibrations, and heat generated by what essentially amounts to a massive controlled explosion. To combat these negative effects, roughly 450,000 gallons of water are released upon ignition, which requires high-pressure, quality pumps in order to power them and prevent massive water loss.

Right now, we don’t have a better way to protect both the rockets and the launch pad from the force of the launch.

The Future of the Energy Industry

The idea of an energy industry has been around for a while, but it didn’t look anything like it does today. We used the sun to keep us warm and the wind to keep us cool. When we discovered fire, it became a tool for heating our homes and cooking food. Water, in addition to being necessary for life, became a tool for grinding flour and even producing power.

It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that coal and eventually oil became more common and replaced water and wind as power sources.

We’re still using coal and oil, as well as limited applications of nuclear, solar, and wind generation, to power homes and businesses for billions of people around the globe. One of our biggest challenges now is moving away from petroleum-based power generation and toward cleaner power options that don’t have a severe negative impact on the planet. That’s where space travel might play an important role.

Tapping Into a Galaxy of Resources

We have only glimpsed a fraction of what might exist outside our solar system, but that has already given us a few ideas about how to power the planet without relying on fossil fuels.

Nuclear fusion is something that has been beyond our reach, save for a few examples in labs that aren’t large enough to power anything more than a couple of LED bulbs. If we can get out into the solar system and begin harvesting helium-3, that might change.

Current nuclear fusion testing uses elements like deuterium and tritium. While these work for fusion and emit plenty of energy, they also release radioactive particles. This is the same sort of waste that has led us to move away from nuclear fission for power generation.

But helium-3 doesn’t release any sort of radioactive waste in a fusion reaction. Just 25 tons of helium-3 could potentially power the entire United States for a whole year. Unfortunately, we don’t have 25 tons of helium-3 — and we have to extract it from the lunar surface. Getting out into the solar system, or even just to the Moon and Mars, opens up a whole galaxy of resources for us to explore and utilize.

The Future of Energy Production

The need for clean energy isn’t going away. It will likely grow as the population continues to climb, and we’ll need new and innovative ways to keep the lights on.

That’s where space travel is going to change everything. We won’t be limited to the resources we can find on Earth’s surface anymore. A sufficient supply of helium-3 alone could potentially turn the planet’s energy production on its ear. Imagine what else we might find out there!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 16, 2021

"That’s where space travel is going to change everything. We won’t be limited to the resources we can find on Earth’s surface anymore. A sufficient supply of helium-3 alone could potentially turn the planet’s energy production on its ear."

Jane, the world's most lucrative industry - fossil fuel - has been promoting the promise of nuclear fusion for over seventy years, and for good reason: to distract from the potential of good old nuclear fission to put them out of business.

So you'll have to excuse my skepticism when I read that space travel, fusion, mining the Moon, and other sources are "going to change everything". They are being promoted for exactly the opposite reason: because they are imaginary, because they are going to change nothing. The world's most lucrative industry wouldn't have it any other way.

As a pro-fission advocate, I'm consistently amazed by the pervasive misperceptions about nuclear energy. Your source calls nuclear fission "too risky", when in fact it is the safest, most reliable method of generating dispatchable electricity - by far. Most importantly, it exists now, and it works. France provides an example of the potential for nuclear fission: between 1974-1986 France decarbonized its electricity faster than any country in history, an accomplishment that would have been impossible without investment in nuclear energy.

It's time to stop waiting for "just around the corner" technologies and go with what works.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 17, 2021

Yes, space travel could change everything!  Most importantly, it could help restore our Apollo era optimism about technology.  During that era, we never would have said no to a vaccine that could stop a pandemic, but today many people & communities shout NO at the top of their lungs (not just to vaccines, but other technologies which are objectively beneficial).

By living off-world, we'll come to understand that as modern humans it is our nature to gather resources from beyond the biosphere, use them for our benefit, recycle what we can, then discard the rest outside of the biosphere.  Trying to collect only those resources which are already in the biosphere make no sense for space traveler, and we'll eventually learn that it makes no sense on Earth either.

As space travelers, we'll also have to grow beyond our fear of radiation (which we learned from our fossil fuel suppliers).  On Earth's surface, we often make the wrong assumption that the radiation around us is zero; it's not zero, but it also isn't dangerous.  In space, there is enough radiation that we'll be forced to monitor our exposure: if it's too high we'll take precautions, otherwise we'll go on about our lives without irrational fear!

And we'll come to respect humanity more.  We'll stop thinking of "prosperity for all" as a zero-sum game where every human advance must be a setback for nature.  We'll think about how on every other world in the solar system, not a single flower will bloom, and not a single bird will sing, until humanity creates a biosphere to bring life to those worlds. 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 19, 2021

Yes, space travel could change everything!  Most importantly, it could help restore our Apollo era optimism about technology.  During that era, we never would have said no to a vaccine that could stop a pandemic, but today many people & communities shout NO at the top of their lungs (not just to vaccines, but other technologies which are objectively beneficial).

Makes you wonder-- if the curse of disinformation via cable news and social media were around during the Apollo missions, what would they be saying? We already have those that cling to the idea that the moon landing was staged today, though, so I guess it's not too hard to imagine!

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 23, 2021

"In space, there is enough radiation that we'll be forced to monitor our exposure: if it's too high we'll take precautions, otherwise we'll go on about our lives without irrational fear!"

Apollo 14 astronauts, on their 216-hour trip to the Moon and back in 1971, were exposed to 11,400 µSv (microsieverts) of radiation, or an effective dose rate of 52 µSv/hr.
For comparison, the average dose rate in the town of Okuma, Japan, roughly 4 miles from Fukushima Daiichi, is 3.0 µSv/hr. Okuma is still in Fukushima's exclusion zone.
As far as precautions, there isn't a lot you can do to protect yourself from cosmic radiation in interplanetary space. Other than wear a lead-lined suit, which would probably double a passenger's weight. And on a space flight, every additional ounce comes at a premium.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 25, 2021

As always, Bob, you make excellent points.

In fact, cosmic radiation would make inhabiting the moon or another planet a non-starter. Once outside the protection of Earth's atmosphere, spaceflight radiation carcinogenesis, for a period of years, would prove fatal for any human adventurer - even those with only a few $billion in the bank:

"Astronauts are exposed to approximately 50-2,000 millisieverts (mSv) while on six-month-duration missions to the International Space Station (ISS), the Moon and beyond. The risk of cancer caused by ionizing radiation is well documented at radiation doses beginning at 100mSv and above."

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 3, 2021

There are a few problems with your analysis Bob.  

That documented cancer risk from 100mSv radiation doses is for prompt doses.  If the exposure if more than a few days, the ability to correction radiation damage (which all living things poses) comes into play.  The usual analogy used to demonstrate this is "a gallon of hard liquid is deadly when consumed in one sitting, but harmless spread over a 6 month space voyage".  Alternatively, "6 hours at the beach can cause sunburn, but the same dosage spread over 90 days of summer will not".  The same goes for radiation; i.e. LNT badly over-estimates risk for slow exposure. 

While some space radiation is highly penetrating (so that shielding against it in transit is hopeless), most is not.  Shielding matters a lot for solar flares and passage through the Earth's radiation belt.  All Mars voyage plans that I have seen assume that passengers will take shelter from solar storms in the pantry, where a ton or of supplies per passenger will be stored.  Once the crew arrives on the Moon or Mars, sand bags filled locally could be used to add shielding to the crew habitat.

Some real-world results: Space Radiation Doesn't Seem to be Causing Astronauts to Die from Cancer, Study Finds.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 4, 2021

Nathan, cancer risk from radiation is multivariate - it depends both on amount of exposure time and energy, and the relationship is non-linear, i.e., "cancer risk rises faster at higher levels of radiation".

Also, using sunburn as an analogy is problematic - the ultraviolet radiation that causes sunburn is non-ionizing, and though the limited dose of ionizing cosmic radiation that penetrates the atmosphere does increase the likelihood of skin cancer over a long period of time, it has no relationship to sunburn.

Though we don't yet know the risks of long exposure to ionizing radiation in space, its generally accepted that the cancer risk of one year in space is more than 52x the risk of one week in space. That's been confirmed by the increased prevalence of cancer among flight crews on commercial jets:

"U.S. flight attendants have a higher prevalence of several forms of cancer, including breast cancer, uterine cancer, gastrointestinal cancer, thyroid cancer, and cervical cancer, when compared with the general public...cabin crews are exposed to the largest effective annual ionizing radiation dose relative to all other U.S. radiation workers because of both their exposure to and lack of protection from cosmic radiation."

U.S. flight attendants at elevated risk of several forms of cancer

LNT does badly over-estimate risk for slow exposure - at low levels of radiation. At higher levels, it badly under-estimates risk for slow exposure.

 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 11, 2021

No, the uv radiation that causes sunburn is definitely ionizing (that's why it is more damaging than an equal amount of solar heat energy); it just can't penetrate the skin.

But I certainly agree that the cancer risk rises faster at higher levels of radiation.

Kimberly McKenzie-Klemm's picture
Kimberly McKenzie-Klemm on Jul 23, 2021

Jane:

I found your post quite interesting and would encourage you to take a look at a Special Issue post I put up a while ago on a similar topic...

https://energycentral.com/c/um/nasa-mars-explorations-future-energy-applications

 

 

JESSE NYOKABI's picture
JESSE NYOKABI on Jul 23, 2021

Thank you for sharing. I love this Nexus between Space Travel and Energy!

Space Tourism seems to be the hot topic!

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