New Zealand researchers discover rocket launches could hinder healing the ozone layer

The ozone layer is slowly healing itself and is on track to be entirely repaired by 2060 but rockets could be standing in the way.

University of Canterbury (UC) researchers have found rocket launches are playing a small part in damaging our ozone layer but with the industry set to scale up the effects could worsen.

The ozone layer, which protects life on earth by absorbing almost all of the sun's harmful ultraviolet light, was severely damaged in the 1980s and 1990s due to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) - chemicals used in aerosols and refrigeration.  

The current impact of rocket launches on the ozone layer is estimated to be small and much less harmful than CFCs, however, as the industry grows researchers said it poses a threat to its recovery. 

"We know that rockets put a whole lot of gasses and particulates into the upper atmosphere, where the ozone layer resides, as the rockets blast off and go out to space, and that many of these gasses and particulates do deplete the ozone layer much in the same way that the chlorofluorocarbons did," University of Canterbury (UC) Associate Professor in Environmental Physics Dr Laura Revell told AM co-host Melissa Chan-Green.

"So while this is a small problem now, we know that the industry is planning to scale up worldwide so this is a really good opportunity to sit down and think how we are going to ensure that the industry develops sustainably."   

Dr Revell and UC astronomy lecturer Dr Michele Bannister found in their review article published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand the global space industry could grow to US$3.7 trillion by 2040.

Currently, rocket fuel emissions are unregulated in New Zealand and internationally.  

Dr Michele Bannister (left) and Dr Laura Revell.
Dr Michele Bannister (left) and Dr Laura Revell. Photo credit: AM

In a statement, UC Master's student Tyler Brown, who was involved in the research, said New Zealand is uniquely positioned to both lead and participate in this field.

"New Zealand's role as a major player in the global launch industry means we can help steer the conversation,"  Brown said.

"We stand to benefit enormously from additional growth in our domestic space industry, with that comes the opportunity to ensure that global activities are sustainable for the planet as a whole."

Dr Bannister told AM that with some proactive measures by the industry. These include measuring the emissions of rockets, making that data available to researchers, and putting effects on ozone into industry best-practise rocket design and development.  

"All of that is really doable, so I think this is something where we can actually see a proactive path towards having some kind of sustainable industry in the next couple of decades," Dr Bannister said. 

"This is our chance to get ahead of the game."