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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Reusable Rockets and the Environment

  • Author(s): Torres, Andres Israel
  • et al.
Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

Many studies have been conducted on the environmental impact of automotive vehicles, but less research has been done on the effects of orbital launch vehicles. This literature review addresses the question, what are the environmental effects of reusable rockets? The environmental effects that are considered include pollution to the atmosphere, soil, and Low Earth Orbit in the form of space debris. Also, reusable orbital launch vehicles are specifically considered because their reduced costs could increase launch frequency. The impact of rockets in general has been difficult to quantify because rockets are not launched very often, and they mostly operate in space. Research has shown that launch prices are decreasing while their total environmental effects is unknown (Jones, 2018). However, research agrees that space debris is a considerable threat to future space activity that will only get worse, but there is no consensus as to when the problem will be too great (Noble, Almanee, Shakir, & Sungmin Park, Apr 2016; Slíz-Balogh, Horváth, Szabó, & Horváth, 2020).

When considering reusable orbital launch vehicles, it is specified that these types of vehicles are rockets that can insert payloads with considerable mass into orbit around Earth or even away from Earth into deep space. There are many rockets currently operational with this capability, but only two are reusable at the time: The Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Unlike their conventional counterparts, these rockets do not eject and discard their first stage. Instead, they recover and reuse it. However, conventional and reusable rockets are similar because they discard their second stage after their payloads have been deployed.

The research conducted in this literature review was taken from databases accessed through the UC Merced library website. They include Engineering Village, Web of Science, Sax’s Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials, etc. Ten sources were referenced which were found using several key search terms including reusable, rocket*, pollution, propellant, space, debris, exploration, etc. Some of the terms were searched in combinations using key phrases like reusable rocket, space debris, rockets AND pollution, etc. Due to the limited research on the environmental effects of rockets on the ocean, it was not mentioned. For example, there were ninety-seven and fifty-eight results under the phrase rocket AND ocean, in Engineering Village and IEEE Xplore databases respectively. None of the papers had anything to do with environmental effects.

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