What impact do space launches and rockets have on the environment when things go wrong. “It’s hard to watch these huge explosions”

Space launches are on the rise and rockets are getting bigger. That’s why experts are concerned about the impact on the environment, especially when things go wrong.

Space X rocket launch PHOTO: EPA EFE

According to the BBC, when SpaceX’s Starship slowly lifted off the launch pad and headed for the Texas sky on April 20, 2023, few people expected the maiden flight of the world’s most powerful rocket to take so long.

Cheers erupted from the crowd lining the nearby roads as the Starship pulled away from the tower and its 33 engines launched it into a cloudless sky. Then, three minutes and 57 seconds into the planned 90-minute flight, the spacecraft exploded, plunging back into the sea in a shower of debris. SpaceX engineers described the explosion as “an unscheduled rapid disassembly”; SpaceX owner Elon Musk said it wast “exciting”. The mission was declared a success.

SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site sits on the southern border of the United States, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. The company launches east to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation, with the added benefit that any rocket debris falls into the ocean (although what effect these rocket crashes have on the marine environment is largely unknown).

The area is surrounded by state parks and national wildlife refuge lands, an important area for protected plants and migratory birds, the source said.

“Ash” fell over nearby communities

As the launcher’s engines ignited, the platform was engulfed in a cloud of dust and smoke. It hid an explosive column of debris—the missile burned a crater in the structure and sent sand, dirt, chunks of metal and concrete through the air that landed up to 10 km (6.2 miles) away.

Fortunately, no one was hurt, but remote cameras captured some of the damage, local public radio reported that “ash” it fell on nearby communities. Later, the surrounding conservation areas were strewn with debris.

With the number of objects launched into space increasing each year and with the development of new launchers, many environmental organizations are concerned about the unintended impacts of rocket technology. Especially when things go wrong.

“It’s hard to watch these huge explosions,” says Sarah Gaines Barmeyer, assistant vice president of conservation programs at the US National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

“The amount of environmental destruction it causes with the debris and the potential for fires, air and water pollution – we would like to see more security and testing before launching spacecraft near protected areas,” says Sarach Gaines Barmeyer.

NPCA experts also warn of the wider risk to coastal areas. He is currently campaigning against the development of a commercial launch site on the Georgia coast near protected wilderness. The group is also among those concerned about expansion plans at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Area, surrounded by plants and wild animals

Famous as a base for Nasa launches, the US Air Force Department is currently assessing the environmental impact of building a new launch pad at Cape Canaveral for Starship and has recently held a series of public meetings in the area to gauge local opinion. One of the proposed locations for the rocket would involve redeveloping an existing launch pad, but the other – a potentially more controversial plan – would involve building an entirely new one closer to the perimeter.

This area is surrounded by plants and wildlife of international importance, including the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge – one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world.

“It has approximately 1,133 plant species, 141 fish species, 74 amphibians and reptiles, 318 birds and 29 different mammals within its boundaries. Twenty-one of these species are federally protected, such as manatees, sea turtles, and American bald eagles.” says Don Dankert, who leads the environmental management team at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.

Nasa has been monitoring the impact of launches in the area for more than 40 years, starting with the first flights of the space shuttle. In a statement, Nasa told the BBC that after 135 launches over a 30-year period, the main impact was “accumulation of aluminum particles, damage to vegetation and temporary reduction of pH in adjacent waters”.

The agency says it also monitors water, air quality and that “the acute impact of space shuttle launches on wildlife populations has been minimal.”