We’ve trashed the oceans; now we are turning space into a junkyard for billionaires | Kevin McKenna

Experts say rocket emissions affect our climate and cause ozone loss, yet too few people seem to care

David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series raised our awareness of rubbish tips traversing our oceans and choking some of our most beloved marine species.

This has led to a global debate about how we manufacture and dispose of plastics. The Scottish government announced that it is to host an international conference in 2019 to discuss action on marine litter. It’s ideal territory for any government seeking to be regarded as edgy and cool on this year’s fashionable cause. No one could disagree with its aims and purpose and, more importantly, nothing that emerges from it will commit anyone to spending money or risking the growth of emerging industries.

Perhaps soon our marine technology will have advanced to the stage where we can actually interpret what whales and dolphins are saying and begin to solicit their views on the subject. These creatures are believed to possess remarkable intelligence. If we reached the stage where we could converse with them, perhaps we could appoint some of them as environment tsars in western governments: that would sort the wheat from the chaff in all the chattering about human impact on the health of marine life.

As the debate about our slatternly disposal of plastics was raging down on Earth we were all acclaiming a fresh addition to the garbage dump swirling above us in space. The billionaire car manufacturer Elon Musk launched one of his Tesla Roadsters to Mars in a rocket produced by his company, SpaceX. According to people who know about this stuff, it was the biggest and most powerful rocket launched since the Apollo series and Saturn V. We further learned that the rocket, the Falcon Heavy, uses 27 Merlin rocket engines to develop 22,819kN of thrust. I’m assured that this can carry a 64-tonne payload into low Earth orbit or geosynchronous orbit: more than sufficient for propelling a sports car to Mars. I won’t pretend I understand the science but let’s just say that Musk won’t be getting invited to address an environmental summit in the near future.

You might be tempted to dismiss this as an expensive publicity stunt by a billionaire playboy with too much time on his hands. But in reality it’s an important step towards a time when space travel for your average indolent millionaire will become commonplace. It will probably become another way of managing your finances when Mars inevitably becomes the ultimate off-shore tax haven.

Quite what our fetish for space exploration and spending billions on the technology required to feed this does to the environment is a serious matter. There’s a dissonance emerging here. On Earth, we’re organising summits and setting up carbon footprint-reduction targets all over the shop. Yet, up in yonder outer space we’ve established a giant garbage dump replete with huge hulks of rusting metal and, as of last week, a $200k American sports car.

Indeed, the whole issue of rocket emissions needs to be considered if we’re serious about the environment. These emissions deliver gases and particles into the Earth’s upper atmosphere and this will be addressed later this year at the UN’s quadrennial global ozone assessment conference. Martin Ross, a senior project engineer for civil and commercial launch projects at the Aerospace Corporation in California, told the online journal Space.com that rocket soot accumulates in the upper stratosphere, where the particles absorb sunlight. “This accumulation heats the upper stratosphere, changing chemical reaction rates and likely leading to ozone loss.” He added: “The 2018 assessment is really the first one to have a substantial section on rocket emissions, not just a passing thought… we now understand that the climate and ozone impacts of rocket exhaust are completely intertwined.”

And if we’re discussing space, then we ought to be discussing the impact of all these rockets on our potential neighbours in the galaxy. I’ve always found it curious that despite spending even more billions over decades trying to locate other forms of intelligent life we’ve had nary a cheep back; not even a single intergalactic WhatsApp message. So either our neighbours are a rude shower or they simply don’t exist. But what if there’s another, more sinister explanation: that they do exist but are so far ahead of us in intelligence that they’ve created the means to put themselves out of our reach, perhaps with a giant jamming device.

This would explain all those sightings of extraterrestrial spacecraft and kidnappings. Every so often, they check us out to see if we’ve advanced to a stage where they feel they can have a reasonable chat with us. Such visits are bound to have left them disappointed. In recent months, I can imagine one of their scouts reporting back: “Look, 2,000 years ago, the leader of the civilised world in Rome gave his horse a seat in his cabinet; now the most civilised country in the world has appointed some medieval bampot called Trump. They’re still savages.”

I can only imagine, too, how resentful they’re getting at us disfiguring their neighbourhood with obsolete metal junk. If I was them I’d be sorely tempted to invade us to sort this out or simply send a short, sharp reminder that our actions have consequences.

Mind how you go.


Kevin McKenna

The GuardianTramp

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