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Julianne Geiger

Julianne Geiger

Julianne Geiger is a veteran editor, writer and researcher for Oilprice.com, and a member of the Creative Professionals Networking Group.

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Space Waste Could Become Big Business

  • Last week, Russia fired a missile into space, destroying one of its own satellites, sparking a debate on the growing space waste problem.
  • Space waste is a major hazard that, if not addressed, could pose a significant threat to future space projects. 
  • There is a new push from governments and private companies to collect and recycle the debris, potentially even creating celestial gas stations from the material.

Last week’s headline that Russia fired a missile into space, destroying one of its own satellites, has shed new light on a growing problem: the debris flying around in space is growing ever more dangerous—with even the smallest rogue particle posing a hazard for spacecraft and even the International Space Station. But one Australian company is joining the ranks of the international collaboration to clean up space—and manufacturer rocket fuel in the process.

Australia’s Neumann Space, after receiving a grant from NASA, has teamed up with Astroscale, Nanorocks, and Cislunar to come up with a system for manufacturing rocket fuel out of the junk that is collected.

Each company has a specific job to do. One company will collect little pieces of debris floating around in space. Another will store that debris and cut it up (while in orbit, no less). The next company will melt that collected debris into metal rods.

And this is where Neumann comes in. Neumann will take those metal rods and ionize them. This creates thrust, which can then move objects in space around orbit.

“It’s like developing a gas station in space,” Neumann’s Chief Executive Officer Herve Astier told the Guardian.

The $8 Billion Trip Home

The space-debris-recycling project is only the latest space-and-rocket-fuel progress that is being made. NASA has another project in the works that would make rocket fuel on Mars using air, water, and sunlight—and could provide the rocket fuel needed for astronauts to return to Earth.

Currently, spacecraft on the way to Mars are powered by rocket fuel derived from methane and liquid oxygen that must be first transported to Mars for use on the return trip. Carrying this amount of fuel comes with a huge price tag of $8 billion—one way.

Related: U.S. Shale Is Refusing To Reinvest Despite Record High Cash Flow

NASA’s latest project, however, would ship two microbes and some enzymes to Mars—instead of methane. A four-football-sized rocket fuel plant—on Mars—would also be needed to manufacture the innovative rocket fuel. Ultimately, this method would use 32% less power than shipping methane from Earth. On top of that, it would generate oxygen to support human crews.

The latest project that would create rocket fuel from space litter isn’t just about keeping space usable by clearing out the junk that would harm spacecraft and space infrastructure. And it’s not all about saving money by not having to transport traditional rocket fuel into space for the voyage home.

Traditional rocket fuels have serious environmental impacts. True, many rockets are propelled by liquid hydrogen fuel. But manufacturing this hydrogen comes with an environmental cost. And still, rocket engines release gases into the air, which eats into the ozone.

Even hybrid rocket engines that burn solid fuel with liquid or gaseous oxidizers generate a lot of soot, which can affect how the atmosphere absorbs heat.

This has led to the development of biofuels, but most of these projects focus on greenifying the rocket fuel manufacturing process rather than the environmental impact of burning the fuel at launch.  

This issue is being looked at in earnest today because the world is launching more spacecraft—including ones for tourism.

Eloise Marais, an associate professor of physical geography at University College London, told the Guardian over the summer that for just one rocket launch, between 200 and 300 tonnes of carbon are spewed into the atmosphere for every four passengers. And the overall carbon emissions from rockets are increasing at a rate of 5.6% per year.

Of course, with less than 200 launches per year, globally, this pales in comparison to the carbon emissions generated from the airline industry.

However, rocket emissions are emitted directly into the upper atmosphere—which means they stay there for two to three years. Even if only water is emitted at this height, it can form clouds and have a warming impact on the Earth.

With space tourism gaining traction, it is difficult to assess precisely how much of an environmental impact space travel will have on the environment. According to the Sub-Orbital Transportation and Space Tourism Market—A Global and Regional Analysis: Focus on End-User has estimated that the space tourism market will reach nearly $3 billion in 2031, growing 15% each year in the next decade.

By Julianne Geiger for Oilprice.com

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