With the success of the Falcon Heavy launch and plans to use similar rockets to explore and eventually populate space in the future, environmentalists wonder about the long-term impact this may have on the atmosphere. Their concerns are exacerbated by worsening climate change and an already depleted ozone layer.
The impact a rocket has on the atmosphere depends on the type of fuel used. For example, those that rely on chlorine destroy the ozone. The Falcon Heavy uses kerosene boosters, which also lead to the depletion of the ozone, thanks to the presence of nitrogen dioxide and nitric oxide.
Even the oxygen fumes the Falcon Heavy emits play a role in its harmful impact on the atmosphere. The higher the rocket is in the atmosphere, the less oxygen there is surrounding it. As a result, the exhaust can form black carbon, which can create fundamental changes to local radiation. They do this by absorbing the heat from the sun, warming the atmosphere immediately surrounding it, but nowhere else.
Rockets also have a lot of carbon dioxide emissions, which are the leading contributor to climate change. One launch does not produce enough to be worrisome, but if space exploration becomes more frequent and lucrative, it could be a problem. For example, if SpaceX decides to fill their launch schedule in the next few years, there could be a devastating impact on the environment.
For this reason, researchers are encouraging Elon Musk and others involved in space exploration to space out their trips. Right now, obtaining reliable data to accurately predict the precise nature of the impact of these launches is difficult. By spreading these launches and missions apart, researchers can gain and analyze more information. Researchers are also asking all space exploration companies to be transparent with their data, or at least to share it with scientists studying climate change.