Earth's Future

Radiative forcing caused by rocket engine emissions



Space transportation plays an important and growing role in Earth's economic system. Rockets uniquely emit gases and particles directly into the middle and upper atmosphere where exhaust from hundreds of launches accumulates, changing atmospheric radiation patterns. The instantaneous radiative forcing (RF) caused by major rocket engine emissions CO2, H2O, black carbon (BC), and Al2O3 (alumina) is estimated. Rocket CO2 and H2O emissions do not produce significant RF. BC and alumina emissions, under some scenarios, have the potential to produce significant RF. Absorption of solar flux by BC is likely the main RF source from rocket launches. In a new finding, alumina particles, previously thought to cool the Earth by scattering solar flux back to space, absorb outgoing terrestrial longwave radiation, resulting in net positive RF. With the caveat that BC and alumina microphysics are poorly constrained, we find that the present-day RF from rocket launches equals 16 ± 8 mW m−2. The relative contributions from BC, alumina, and H2O are 70%, 28%, and 2%. respectively. The pace of rocket launches is predicted to grow and space transport RF could become comparable to global aviation RF in coming decades. Improved understanding of rocket emission RF requires more sophisticated modeling and improved data describing particle microphysics.