The SpaceX Launch was unique in a lot of ways.

It marked the first time a private company sent a rocket that heavy into space; it was the first time a sports car was launched into space; it was live-streamed like a football game, with rowdy fans and breathless play-by-play announcers.

And it was a reminder that space exploration can be extremely damaging to the environment.

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The astrophysicist Ian Whittaker wrote that the SpaceX rocket that launched from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, on Wednesday burned a massive amount of fuel.

The rocket held 440 tons of jet fuel, which has a high carbon content, meaning it releases a lot of carbon dioxide into the air when burned. If SpaceX meets its target of launching a rocket every two weeks, then the company will be releasing roughly 4,000 tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year, Whittaker calculated.

That’s nothing compared to annual carbon output around the world, but if more rocket companies come to market, as is expected, then space travel could rapidly account for a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

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More pressing, Whittaker argues, is the problem of space debris.

Just as the oceans are becoming cesspools of plastic and other garbage, outer space is becoming riddled with space debris.

There are now around 150 million objects floating in space because of human-launched expeditions and experiments.

All of this debris can interrupt and even destroy critical satellite infrastructure that perform functions like measuring climate change and enabling GPS, Whittaker says, and could ultimately make it harder for legitimate scientific expeditions to take place.

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SpaceX is owned by the billionaire Elon Musk, who has invested in environmental sustainability through Tesla cars, solar panels, and battery storage plants.

During an event in 2015, Musk said that he’s aware of the problem of space debris and factors it into his exploration plans.

“We don’t want to create any issues [with space debris],” he said. “So we’re going to make sure we can deal with the satellites respectively.”

SpaceX’s mission is to develop technology that can allow people to live on other planets. Because of global problems like climate change, many people have expressed interest in this goal and are investing in the company.  

Whether or not this goal can be accomplished while protecting various environments is yet to be seen.

Global Citizen campaigns on environmental sustainability and you can take action on this issue here.


Defend the Planet

The SpaceX Launch Was Actually Really Bad for the Environment

By Joe McCarthy