With Falcon Heavy, SpaceX staged an amazing launch – but what about the environmental impact?

Falcon Heavy lifts off on Tuesday 6 February. Image: Getty.

SpaceX has now launched the most powerful spacecraft since the Apollo era – the Falcon Heavy rocket – setting the bar for future space launches. The most important thing about this reusable spacecraft is that it can carry a payload equivalent to sending five double-decker London buses into space – which will be invaluable for future manned space exploration or in sending bigger satellites into orbit.

Falcon Heavy essentially comprises three previously tested rockets strapped together to create one giant spacecraft. The launch drew massive international audiences – but while it was an amazing event to witness, there are some important potential drawbacks that must be considered as we assess the impact of this mission on space exploration.

But let’s start by looking at some of the many positives. Falcon Heavy is capable of taking 68 tonnes of equipment into orbit close to the Earth. The current closest competitor is the Delta IV heavy which has a payload equivalent of 29 tonnes. So Falcon Heavy represents a big step forward in delivering ever larger satellites or manned missions out to explore our solar system. For the purposes of colonising Mars or the moon, this is a welcome and necessary development.

The launch itself, the views from the payload and the landing of the booster rockets can only be described as stunning. The chosen payload was a Tesla Roadster vehicle belonging to Space X founder and CEO Elon Musk – with a dummy named “Starman” sitting in the driver’s seat along with plenty of cameras.

This sort of launch spectacle gives a much needed public engagement boost to the space industry that has not been seen since the time of the space race in the 1960s. As a side effect this camera feed from the payload also provided yet another proof that the Earth is not flat – a subject about which Musk has previously been vocal.

The fact that this is a fully reusable rocket is also an exciting development. While vehicles such as the Space Shuttle have been reusable, their launch vehicles have not. That means their launches resulted in a lot of rocket boosters and main fuel tanks either burning up in the atmosphere or sitting on the bottom of the ocean (some are recovered).

This recovery massively reduces the launch cost for both exploration and scientific discovery. The Falcon Heavy has been promoted as providing a cost of roughly $1,300 per kg of payload, while the space shuttle cost approximately $60,000 per kg. The impact this price drop has for innovative new space products and research is groundbreaking. The rocket boosters on this test flight had a controlled and breathtakingly simultaneous landing onto the launch pad.

Environmental impact

So what could possibly be wrong with this groundbreaking test flight? While visually appealing, cheaper and a major technological advancement, what about the environmental impact? The rocket is reusable, which means cutting down the resources required for the metal body of the rocket. However, the mass of most rockets are more than 95 per cent fuel. Building bigger rockets with bigger payloads means more fuel is used for each launch. The current fuel for Falcon Heavy is RP-1 (a refined kerosene) and liquid oxygen, which creates a lot of carbon dioxide when burnt.

The amount of kerosene in three Falcon 9 rockets is roughly 440 tonnes and RP-1 has a 34 per cent carbon content. This amount of carbon is a drop in the ocean compared to global industrial emissions as a whole, but if the SpaceX’s plan for a rocket launch every two weeks comes to fruition, this amount of carbon (approximately 4,000 tonnes per year) will rapidly become a bigger problem.

Space hazards

The car test payload is also something of an issue. The vehicle has been scheduled to head towards Mars, but what has not been made clear is what is going to happen to it afterwards. Every modern space mission is required to think about clearing up after itself. In the cases of planetary or lunar satellites this inevitably results in either a controlled burn-up in the atmosphere, or a direct impact with the body they orbit.

Space debris is rapidly becoming one of the biggest problems we face – there are more than 150m objects that need tracking to ensure as few collisions with working spacecraft as possible. The result of any impact or degradation of the car near Mars could start creating debris at the red planet, meaning that the pollution of another planet has already begun.

Space Junk. Image: David Shikomba/Wikipedia/creative commons.

However, current reports suggest that the rocket may have overshot its trajectory, meaning the vehicle will head towards the asteroid belt rather than Mars. This is probably going to mean a collision is inevitable. The scattering of tiny fragments of an electric vehicle is, at minimum, pollution – and at worst, a safety hazard for future missions. Where these fragments end up will be hard to predict – and hence troublesome for future satellite launches to Mars, Saturn or Jupiter. The debris could be drawn by the gravity of Mars, asteroids or even swept away with the solar wind.

What is also unclear is whether the car was built in a perfect clean room. If not there is the risk that bacteria from Earth may spread through the solar system after a collision. This would be extremely serious, given that we are currently planning to search for life on neighbouring bodies such as Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa. If microorganisms were found there we may never know whether they actually came from Earth in the first place.

The ConversationOf course, these issues don’t affect my sense of excitement and wonder at watching the amazing launch. The potential advantages of this large-scale rocket are incredible, but private space firms must also be aware that the potential negative impacts (both in space and on Earth) are just as large.

Ian Whittaker, Lecturer, Nottingham Trent University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Here are eight thoughts on TfL’s proposed cuts to London’s bus network

A number 12 bus crosses Westminster Bridge. Image: Getty.

In 2016, the urbanism blog City Observatory had a modest proposal for how American cities could sort out their transport systems: “Londonize”.

Its theory, the name of which referenced another popular urbanism blog, Copenhagenize, was that the key plank of Transport for London’s success was something that even transport nerds did not consider very sexy: its buses.

Though the Tube might get more glamorous press, London’s bus service really is impressively massive: It carries roughly 2.3bn passengers per year—much more than the Tube (1.3bn), close to the New York City subway (2.8bn), and nearly half as much as every bus service in America combined (5.1bn), while serving a population roughly 1/35 as large.

How has TfL done this? By making its bus network high frequency, reliable, relatively easy to understand and comprehensive. We rarely talk about this, because the tube map is far more fun – but the reason it’s so difficult to fall off the transport network in Greater London is because you’re never that far from a bus.

Given all that, we should probably talk about TfL’s plans to rethink – and in most cases, cut – as many as 36 different central London bus services over the next few months.

I’m not going to rehash details of the changes on which TfL is consulting from next month: there are just too many of them, and anyway it’s someone else’s scoop. The story was originally broken by Darryl Chamberlain over on 853 London; there’s also some fascinating analysis on Diamond Geezer’s blog. You should read both of those stories, though preferably not before you’ve finished reading this one.

Before offering my own analysis of the proposed changes, though, I should offer a few examples. More than a dozen routes are facing a trim: the 59 from King’s Cross back to Euston, the 113 from Oxford Circle to Marble Arch, the 171 from Holborn all the way down to Elephant & Castle and so on. A couple – the 10, the 48, the C2, and at most times the special routemaster version of the 15 – are being withdrawn altogether.

On, and one new route is planned – the 311, from Fulham Broadway to Oxford Circus. This will help plug some of the cuts to the 11, 19 and 22.

So, what does all this mean? Some thoughts:

1) This might not quite be as awful as it initially sounds

TfL says that demand for buses has fallen by around 10 per cent in London in recent years. It predicts it’ll fall further when Crossrail opens, as passengers switch to the new line, or to the tube routes relieved by the new line. So: the idea of taking some unwanted capacity out of the system is not, in itself, terrible.

Striping out unnecessary buses should also improve air quality in some of London’s worst pollution hot spots, and improve traffic flow, hopefully speeding up journeys on those buses that remain. 

A map from the presentation in which TfL explained its plans, showing the reduction in bus numbers on key arteries. Hilariously, notes Darryl Chamberlain, “It no longer produces its own maps, so has had to use one prepared by a bus enthusiast”.

The plans might even free up buses and staff to increase frequencies in outer London where demand hasn’t fallen – though these plans won’t be unveiled until next year and, for reasons I’ll come to below, I’ll believe it when we see it.

2) For many bus users, a lot of these changes will pass almost unnoticed

By my count, I use nine of the affected routes with any regularity – but only three of the changes are things that I’m likely to be at all inconvenienced by. Most of the changes either affect a part of the route I don’t take, or one where there are easy, and pain free, alternatives.

This is anecdotal, obviously – perhaps I’m just lucky. But my suspicion is that a lot of these changes will go unnoticed by most passengers. It’s only the sheer number of them happening at once that makes this look like a big deal.

3) The Hopper fare makes this easier...

Once upon a time, if you had to switch buses, you had to pay a second fare. This isn’t true of journeys on the tube or railways – and since bus passengers have, on average, less money than tube passengers, it amounted to a pretty unfair tax on poorer Londoners.

But in January, in what is probably his most notable policy achievement of his two years in office so far, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan changed the rules. Now you can take as many buses as you want within an hour, for a single fare: that means you can switch buses without paying a penalty.

That will have made it easier for TfL to cut routes back: replacing a direct bus journey with one that requires a change no longer means imposing a financial penalty on passengers.

4) ...but not that easy

That’s about where the good news stops, though – because there are reasons other than cost why people prefer direct bus routes. Needing to change buses will be difficult for anyone with any form of mobility impairment, for example. Even for those of us lucky enough not to fall into that category, it’ll be annoying: it’s just easier to stay in one seat for 40 minutes than to get turfed off and have to fight for a new one halfway through.

More than that, from the passengers’ point of view, excess capacity feels quite good a lot of the time: it means your bus may well be nice and empty. Reducing the number of buses along those key corridors will also make those that remain more crowded.

5) The motive is almost certainly financial

Another of Sadiq Khan’s big policy promises was to freeze fares. He made this promise at a time when central government is massively reducing the financial support it gives TfL (the work, Chamberlain notes, of Evening Standard editor George Osborne, back when he was chancellor). And the Hopper fare, while a great idea in many ways, means a further reduction in income.

So: TfL is scrambling for cash: this is why I remain cynical about those new outer London bus routes. I would be amazed if money wasn’t a motivation here, not least because...

6) TfL thinks no one will notice

Any attempt to reduce tube frequencies, let alone close a station, would result in uproar. Hashtag campaigners! Angry people pointing at things in local newspapers! Damning reports on the front of the Evening Standard from the bloke who made it happen!

Buses, though? Their routes change, slightly, all the time. And do you really notice whether your local route comes every 10 minutes or every 12? That’s not to mention the fact that bus passengers, as previously noted, tend to be poorer – and so, less vocal – than tube passengers.

So cuts, and the savings they bring, are much easier to sneak through. TfL probably would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling bloggers.


7) Scrapping the C2 might be a mistake

The C2 runs from Parliament Hill, through Kentish Town and Camden to Oxford Circus. In other words, it links north London, where a lot of journalists live, to the offices of the BBC and Buzzfeed.

As occasional New Statesman writer James Ball notes, this is probably not the easiest route to quietly shelve.

8) None of this is set in stone

The consultation doesn’t even begin until next month and then will run for six weeks – so all these plans may yet be forgotten. We shall see.

Anyway – here’s Darryl Chamberlain’s original scoop, and here’s some detailed analysis on Diamond Geezer. Please support your local bloggers by reading them.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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