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Could 2023 be the year SpaceX's Starship finally reaches orbit?

Meanwhile, no one is thinking of the horrible emissions coming out of all these rockets, say scientists

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said over the weekend that, despite nearly two years since a successful launch, Starship will be flying again this March – with orbital ambitions.

"If remaining tests go well, we will attempt a Starship launch next month," Musk said in a tweet, which is backed up by an FCC application SpaceX filed for a Starship launch window between March and September.

According to SpaceX's application, the March launch will entail an "experimental orbital demo and recovery test of the Starship test vehicle from Boca Chica TX."

The last successful launch and recovery (or only, depending on how you classify them) was in May 2021, when Starship 15 reached 10,000 meters (32,808ft), or a little over six miles, and managed to land, but not without a little unexpected methane fire.

The Karman line, commonly accepted to be the spot where Earth's atmosphere ends and space begins, is around 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, above sea level. 

In early February, Musk said he was "highly confident" Starship would reach orbit last year, which didn't happen. Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and COO, said in 2019 that the company "definitely" wanted to land Starship on the Moon "before 2022," which definitely didn't happen.

SpaceX has a contract with NASA to land astronauts on the Moon using Starship as part of the Artemis program, which has been extended to order additional work on Starship for a planned 2027 landing of astronauts on the Moon using the craft.

Space: The final (climate change) frontier

Whether or not Starship is successful in its upcoming launch attempt, a study from a group of scientists out of New Zealand is pointing out something about the burgeoning space industry: we have very little idea the degree to which launches are harming the atmosphere and could put a new hole in the ozone layer.

Rocket fuels, the study found, emit "a suite of gaseous and particulate exhaust products" including carbon dioxide, water vapor, black carbon (soot), aluminum and nitrogen oxides, and reactive chlorine.

Based on current launch behavior, the team estimates that global rocket launches release 10 kilotons of carbon dioxide, six kilotons of water vapor, half a kiloton of chlorine, 50,000kg of nitrous oxides and around a kiloton each of alumina particulate and soot per year.

That's the yearly carbon footprint of 650 Australian citizens, Cosmos pointed out.

The cadence of space launches has continued to climb steadily since 2002, when around 60 launches occurred, to last year when there were around 180 successful orbital launches – 44 more than 2021. SpaceX alone accounted for 61 of the 180 launches last year, nearly doubling its 2021 launch numbers.

Unfortunately, little actual data is gathered around launches and how the release of so much greenhouse gas and particulate matter in the upper atmosphere – as opposed to here on the ground – makes those launches even worse for the environment, the study said. 

According to the study, greenhouse gas emissions from rockets could grow to equal the aviation industry in the coming decades, but a "lack of comprehensive in-situ emission measurements for modern launch vehicles … limits the predictive power of atmospheric modelling." 

If you're wondering what this has to do with SpaceX's Starship, its Raptor engines further complicate the scenario because they use a newer form of rocket fuel that mixes methane and liquid oxygen, instead of refined petroleum rocket fuel and liquid oxygen. Because the methane-LOX fuel design is relatively new, its emissions "are poorly understood and not experimentally quantified." 

Raptor engines, SpaceX's methane-powered model developed for Starship, are reportedly twice as powerful as the Merlin engines used in its current Falcon rocket series. Each Falcon uses nine Merlin engines. Falcon Heavy, being three Falcons strapped together, boasts 27 Merlins. 

Starship, at its full loadout, will include 33 Raptors in its booster and three more in the Starship craft itself – that's a lot of poorly understood emissions. 

Study co-author Dr Michele Bannister, planetary scientist at the University of Canterbury, says that rockets are the quintessential "charismatic technology," by which she means "the promise of what the technology can enable drives deep emotional investment – extending far beyond what the technology also affects." 

To ensure we're not burned by the UV-intensive effects of increased space travel, the team says several things need to happen: quantifiable emissions standards need to be enacted at design and test phases, cross-disciplinary coordination is needed to ensure better in-situ measurements, stratospheric effects need to be considered as well, and there needs to be a normalization of making rocket emissions data readily available to aid in those studies. 

Fortunately, the boffins from New Zealand say there's a whole group of scientists ready to take action whenever the rocket makers decide to get serious about the environmental cost of their projects.

"The ozone research community is well equipped to understand and give recommendations to these effects, and has existing frameworks to help develop sensible and non-restrictive regulation," the researchers said in the paper. 

As for whether we need to worry about the environmental effects of Elon's methane rocket – let's just get the thing to orbit first. ®

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