How Bad Are Rocket Launches for the Environment?

Hey guys! We’ve just hit 4 million subscribers, and we wanted to thank you for all the support over the years. And for this special occasion, we’re going to continue to do what we do best and break down the science we know you all love so much! Thanks again for all the support! In recent years, rocket launches have recaptured the public’s imagination. Thanks to incredible footage of reusable rockets
like Space-X’s Falcon 9 and Blue Origin’s New Shepard making almost unreal-looking landings
on landing pads and drone ships, a rocket launch has become must-see Internet TV. They even pull zany stunts, like Elon Musk
launching an electric car into space and announcing he hopes to put a million people on Mars. That’s a lofty goal, pun intended, and to
achieve it, we’re going to have to launch a lot of rockets, much more than the 80 or
90 we currently do each year. If rate of launches climbs, pun intended again,
has anyone considered what all those rockets are doing to our environment? Rockets work by burning propellant, and lots
of it. Instead of like the engine in your car, which
burns fuel to make gasses expand, which pushes a piston which turns a shaft which ultimately
turns your wheels, rockets skip all that middle stuff and just jump straight to lighting fuel on fire,
pushing themselves forward using the expanding gases that are shooting out the back. As you might imagine, this uses tons of fuel. So much so that over 95% of the mass of most
rockets is just fuel. What does burning that much fuel mean for
something like global warming? How much CO2 does one rocket launch emit? We could actually figure that out with the
power of math. No don’t go, I promise it’ll be simple. Let’s take the most powerful rocket there
is right now, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which is basically 3 Falcon 9’s duct-taped together. Falcon Heavys use liquid oxygen and a
rocket fuel called RP-1, which is highly refined kerosene. Nearly 86% of RP-1’s mass is carbon, and SpaceX doesn’t publish specifics, but a rough estimate of a full tank of gas for the Falcon Heavy is
about 425 metric tons of RP-1. That’s about 365 tonnes of carbon per launch. Let’s assume all that carbon combines with
oxygen to form CO2. Carbon makes up 27% of the mass of CO2, so divide
that 365 tonnes of carbon by 0.27 and you get nearly 1,352 tonnes of carbon dioxide per launch,
give or take. By comparison, a typical passenger car emits
4.6 tonnes of CO2 annually, so one rocket launch is the equivalent of nearly 294 cars on the
road for a year. That… doesn’t seem so bad actually. Even if we launched one Falcon Heavy, the
most powerful rocket currently flying remember, every day for a year that would still emit less CO2 than 110,000 cars. There are over 270 million registered vehicles
in the U.S. alone, so that’s a drop in the bucket. And that’s assuming all the fuel is used
completely. The real environmental issue is rockets aren’t
that efficient. RP-1 that doesn’t completely burn forms
chains of hydrogen and carbon. These dark sooty particles are known as black
carbon, and in the atmosphere they can trap incoming heat. In the stratosphere, this heat can speed up
reactions and lead to the breakdown of ozone particles, depleting the ozone layer and exposing
us down here to more UV radiation. Along with black carbon, RP-1 produces nitric
oxide and nitrogen dioxide, which are highly reactive and further break down ozone. But before you get mad at Elon Musk, just
remember that different fuels produce different pollutants, and some are much worse for the
ozone layer. The chlorine-based fuel used in the Space
Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters utterly obliterates ozone. Solid propellants also produce more alumina,
which is a shiny particulate that could reflect heat back into space, but could also trap
outgoing heat from the planet’s surface, so we don’t know the impact it would have
on climate. That’s really the theme here, we just don’t
know enough to say for sure what mass rocket launches would do to our planet. Companies keep rocket data confidential, so
the data we have is mostly from lab experiments, modeling, and a few sensor-equipped planes
that flew through rocket plumes about 20 years ago. We may feel that we don’t launch enough
rockets to be concerned with their pollution, but that’s what we thought about space junk
before it became a major problem. If we have more research and better data,
we’ll have a better understanding of our impact on the planet. Some scientists are calling for just that
before we make a final say on just how much rocket launches affect the environment. So the next time you watch another live launch
and impressive landing, just keep in the back of your mind that more research is needed. Thanks for watching don’t forget to subscribe
because we have more videos, like Maren’s about just how big our atmosphere is. Does the impact of rocket launches worry you
or do you think our focus should be on other environmental problems? Let us know in the comments and I’ll see
you next time on Seeker.

100 thoughts on “How Bad Are Rocket Launches for the Environment?

  • Hi there! ??Looks like we tackled the difficult math, but missed the tiny onscreen percentage sign! As most of you pointed out, 27% would be converted to 0.27, not 0.27%. Thanks for always looking out for the details to make our content even greater, and happy 4 million subscribers!

  • You guys are seriously the best channel on YouTube. The amount of information and time spent on making consistent quality videos does not even compare to similar channels

  • Mars trips will be done with Starship and it's propelling Super heavy booster. Their new Raptor engines use LOX and Methane as propellant. Theoretically Methane can be produced CO2 neutral. That's the plan anyway when they are going to manufacture it on the surface of Mars for return trips.

  • Lol stop perpetuating that hole in the Ozone lie or that it's being "depleted". Ozone is generated and decays in real time and in an on going basis and doesn't need to build up. The UV radiation emitted from our sun or cosmic radiation provides the energy necessary to split the molecules in order to form ozone and ceases during the night. The "hole" is nothing more than a natural phenomenon that occurs over the poles due to the polar night when the sun doesn't shine for 28 days and the sun does not rise above the horizon for six months out of the year. How would the ozone be generated above the poles without the UV radiation from the sun? It can't which means that's always been there!

  • those puns arnt even fun or clever so its best to not annouce that they were pun intended and just roll with it… this only makes it cringy and awkward still good video tho

  • I'm surprised you didn't use data from CO2 generate by our aircraft instead!
    Rockets take up nothing compared to the amount of CO2 put out globally by aircraft around the world.
    My hope is we run out of oil and other carbon fuels tomorrow and let the chips fall where they may.
    I think the death and destruction it would create, is nothing compared to what's waiting for us if we don't do anything.
    We should focus our remaining energy reserves in making solar panels, windmills, batteries,… ect.
    Everything we need to transition to renewable source. Our world is solar powered. it has always been that way.
    Upgrade programs like 100% tax deductible and 0% financing for homes to install solar PV panels and setup a local generating station.
    Today, there are thousands of houses off grid. Generating their own power for < $10K
    Expensive? For sure. But the alternatives is for you to eat your money instead of food and crops.
    Our forestry program at this point should include growing bamboo everywhere it can grow.
    It's the fastest growing grass and removes the most carbon from the air in the shortest time. We can switch to engineered timber made with
    bamboo from our new bamboo forests. Lot stronger than pine too. Those of you with bamboo flooring know what I mean.
    We can harness the power of waves near the world's shores. There are many positive things we could do, but we don't.
    When people in power don't even believe global warming is real, what else do you expect?
    When there are clowns around, expect to see a circus.

  • Don't start out with saying that we need a lot of launches to get a million people on mars and then analyse a completely different rocket that's not for that purpose and uses a different fuel.

  • "Shuttle main engines was powered by liquid hydrogen and RP1 and only has Water as exhaust"
    "The most dangerous propellant to the ozone layer is shuttle SRBs"

  • nice video but would probably have been worth going over our transition to methane based rockets with the blue origin and spacex ships.

  • You should also talk about the embodied emissions from making a rocket. On that score SpaceX is by far the best because it recycles more than anyone else.

  • Very good question. I think manage our internal problems like go 100% renewable is paramount anyway you analyze. We just produce too much waste on all levels of our existence. Reducing this waste will greatly contribute to stabilizing global warming!!!

  • Burning RP-1 using AIR produces NOx but that isn't the case in a rocket engine. In a rocket engine you're burning it with pure oxygen so there is no nitrogen present to produce NOx. At most there are trace amounts created when the flame heats the surrounding atmosphere but thats infinitesimal compared to what a combustion engine produces by injecting 80% nitrogen INSIDE the combustion chamber.

  • RP-1 and kerosene are basically diesel which isn't that different from gasoline. Wouldn't the incompletely burned byproducts of rockets also be produced in a similar amount by all those cars currently on the road?

  • If environmentalists start coming after rocket launches I would say it's time to bring back lynching and the stocks.

  • 1. Can you not just wear a long sleeve shirt or do something to cover up your skinny to the bone flesh, its unhealty & not to be look like some drug addiction somehow, thoese girls even healthy then you.

    2. Please dont put those noisy / non_harmony background tune / sound, use something sound like soft tone.

    3. Use zoom in from face to chest view angle, those women presenter didnt have full body view, to hide your mummy skinny hand.

    4. Fact check first before presenting.

  • So when are you going to upgrade your content with the funds from these subs? Can we expect dual daily videos or much more in depth docs? Or just the same poorly explained 4-8min videos.

  • Stop 270 million vehicles from moving and you will see an economy fail, mass starvation, civil war. Stop musk's rockets and no one will feel a thing. Get some perspective morons.

  • Rocket company should buy their fuel from someone who makes it with a sustainable energy! Simple for h2. and methane with the sabatier process we would actualy depolute the atmosphere cause when you lunch a rocket you keep burning propellant out of the atmosphere

  • The fact is that rocket launches are vital to our modern way of life. But reusable rockets absolutely reduce marine pollution.

  • This really made me think again about water powered rockets, through steam. Efficiency on simple ones is pretty low, but supposedly with a very complex engine you could theoretically reach 800isp (~320-400isp is normal for rp1).
    The problem is energy for heating the water into steam… It'll require a ton of batteries, and the production of those batteries will not be very eco friendly, and the efficiency of the rocket goes down drastically due to the massive weight of the batteries.

    But what if we could actually create a small MSR, that is able to generate enough energy to sustain the heat for this steam rocket?
    This just makes me wish even more that research would go into Molten Salt Reactors, it's not just about clean energy.
    Although, they probably won't be light either, but maybe significantly lighter than all those batteries required.

    Getting to space with steam powered rockets would be very steam punk.

  • See… I always thought most newer rockets used liquid hydrogen + oxygen as fuel, i don't imagine water vapour as very damaging to the environment

  • The estimated CO2 release is just from the actual launch. A significant contribution also is made from the production of the rocket fuel (like with fuels in general based on fossil sources).

  • Pretty sure the benefits outweigh the cost. Sattelites are extremely valuable, and gps alone likely helps people find better routes and make less mistakes driving, which in and of itself reduces carbon emissions. Without rockets were s.o.l. on satellites

  • Rocket launches are fine! The *real* damage is done by *Democrats* – they use perfectly good *air* that *someone else* could be using……………..

  • Dammit! Now we need NASA and Elon Musk to do Seeker review We already did Elon Musk meme review on Pewdiepie's channel

  • What about liquid hydrogen/oxygen rockets? Are there any environmental downsides there other than the major cooling costs?

  • Of course you think CO2 is causing global warming. Did you know that nearly every single weather station in the US Historical Climate Network has been moved at least once over the past century? In fact, John Cook, the lead author behind the study claiming 97% of scientists agree about anthropogenic global warming said “the motivation for the analysis was the importance of scientific consensus in shaping public opinion, and therefore policy.”
    Here's a search that'll only find that exact sentence.

  • Maybe the main problem is that there are too many cars, ships, planes, factories and too many humans on this
    Planet. Unfortunately we live in an economy that requires us to have more and more of these things, and
    Also more and more people all the time. Rocket launches are the same – having just a certain number of
    Launches every year is not an environmental problem, or at least only a small environmental problem
    But the problem will get bigger with more launches just as the problem of space debris becomes bigger the more
    And more craft that are put into orbit. Society will have to find a way of reducing or stopping growth while at the same
    Time maintains reasonable living standards. After all, people living in poverty are less likely to worry about emissions
    That may or may not affect the weather in say, a decade or two from now, while they have more immediate concerns,
    Like when their next meal will be. Even if the climate is being affected right now, as people say it is, people
    Living in poverty will still worry more about the need to feed themselves and their families and if that means the need to use
    Fossil fuels to to so, then they will do so.

  • Could always use Maglev technology to speed up a shuttle into orbit. Just need a long launch track to gather speed.

  • I'd like to hear more about the toxic effects of space launches on the near environment at the launch site. Did the space shuttle launch's chlorine and aluminum fuel (and other chemicals) turn Kennedy Space Center into a toxic dump? And if so, why are we still considering using solid rocket boosters on upcoming space launch systems? Space X can do it without solid rocket boosters. Why don't others consider something else?

  • Remember folks, a large number of rockets use Liquid Hydrogen and Liquid Oxygen, which only produces water when it burns.
    Then there is Liquid Methane + Liquid Oxygen, which still produces CO2, but it produces only CO2 and water vapor, no ozone-depleting materials….
    Those rockets will be far better than RP1-based ones. The SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy, uses Methan + Oxygen

  • Wait whaaat I thought that only oxygen and hydrogen were used is rocket fuel! So is it used in some cases? And if yes why not in all?

  • Revelation 13:13 King James Version (KJV)
    13 And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men,

  • Except that you didn't talk about the toxic chemicals in rocket fuel such as perchlorates that have been seeping into and polluting our waterways. Most humans test positive for this now because they've polluted so much of our environment. There's so much more to this than just the ozone and carbon.

  • I think that the best justification for burning polluting fuels like rp1 would be to move industry off planet into the asteroid belt or some other body so that we could eliminate a much larger portion of the planets CO2 footprint than cars.

  • unless we can travel close to the speed of light i don not really see the point to waste trillions of $$ to poke and prod mars or the moon. Enough money goes into space to feed and help A LOT OF KIDS .

  • Both the RS-25 and the Raptor engines solve this in their own way. Both are carbon neutral if done right.

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