Rocket boost for space missions
Space exploration is back in the news, and how! The most powerful spacecraft since the Apollo era, the Falcon Heavy rocket, has been launched by SpaceX. This has set the bar very high for future space launches. The most important thing about this reusable spacecraft is that it can carry a payload equivalent to sending five double-decker London buses into space. This will be invaluable for future manned space exploration or in sending bigger satellites into the orbit. Falcon Heavy essentially comprises three previously tested rockets strapped together to create one giant spacecraft. Understandably, the launch drew massive international audiences. But, while it was an amazing event to witness, there are some important potential drawbacks that must be considered as the impact of this mission on space exploration will be assessed. But, first, the positives. Falcon Heavy is capable of taking 68 tonnes of equipment into the orbit close to the Earth. So, it represents a big step forward in delivering larger satellites or manned missions out to explore our solar system. For the purposes of colonising Mars or the moon, this would be a welcome and necessary development. The launch itself, the views from the payload and the landing of the booster rockets have all been described as stunning. The chosen payload was a Tesla Roadster vehicle belonging to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, with a dummy named "Starman" sitting in the driver's seat along with plenty of cameras. This sort of launch spectacle provides a much-needed public engagement boost to the space industry, something that has not been witnessed since the time of the space race in the 1960s. The fact that this is a fully reusable rocket is also an exciting development. While vehicles such as the Space Shuttle have been reusable, their launch vehicles have not. This massively reduces the launch cost for both exploration and scientific discovery. So, what could possibly be wrong with this groundbreaking test flight? While visually appealing, cheaper and a major technological advancement, what about the environmental impact? The mass of most rockets is more than 95 per cent fuel. Building bigger rockets with bigger payloads means more fuel is used for each launch. The current fuel for Falcon Heavy is RP-1 (a refined kerosene) and liquid oxygen, which creates a great deal of carbon emission. Space debris is rapidly becoming one of the biggest problems in space exploration and hence, troublesome for future satellite launches to Mars, Saturn or Jupiter. Of course, these issues do not affect the sense of excitement and wonder at watching the amazing launch. The potential advantages of this large-scale rocket are incredible, but private space firms must also be aware that the potential negative impacts (both in space and on Earth) are just as large.