• Angus Bishop

Sustainability; a new frontier?

Is a new home a new hope? How will the mars missions impact sustainability?


On the 30th May 2020, Space X made history. Two astronauts aboard a Falcon 9 rocket became the first two men in history to fly into space aboard a commercial craft. The mastermind behind all this, Elon Musk, is pretty clear that the endgame of this endeavour will be to get to Mars.


The guy who founded Tesla, a significant step the human race has seen towards environmentally sustainable cars, is planning to jump ship and run to another planet? That either screams volumes about how bad he thinks climate change will be and wants to jump ship… or means he thinks he knows how to solve it. Or maybe he likes significant challenges.

So, is the mars mission a poison chalice or the elixir of life for the human race’s sustainable future?


Speculating about the impact of terrestrial sustainability from the upcoming mars missions may seem like a science fiction novel, and yes, some of the policies that will have to be implicated will seem far-fetched. But the mission is going to mars, so far-fetched is the whole point.


First, sustainability is no longer a matter of circularising terrestrial economies. Orbital, interplanetary and Martian sustainability are all authentic concepts and of massive importance to our future. Before we look at sustainability outside of our atmosphere, we should first calculate the footprint of a Space X launch, and what footprint for the planned missions is going to look like.


(Source: Space-x)


The fuel load of a trip to Mars would look something like 8 thousand tonnes of liquid methane and supercooled oxygen. (3.4 per super-heavy booster and a further 1.2 for the trip there and back).


The good news is that the mix is around 1 kg methane to 3.6 kg of liquid oxygen. However, this still means a 1424 kg of CO2 would be released into the earth’ atmosphere. The trip there and back will thankfully have no impact on our atmosphere since the emissions will disperse into space.


Starship may release a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere, but in reality, its carbon footprint of a starship launch is shallow. Because if you have a spacecraft capable of interplanetary voyages it makes sense that you should work out how to use shared resources found on other planets to manufacture fuel on other planets.


I think this is pure genius. Space X is using solar power to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere here on earth to make the methane fuel which will power the starship. When they have managed to do this on earth, they will be able to copy the technology on mars and extract martian CO2 combined with oxygen from martian water to fuel further missions onwards into the rest of the solar system.


This is the most groundbreaking development in human transportation histories impact on sustainability since the invention of the commercial electric car.


Liquid methane and oxygen (LOX) might currently be difficult to make and store, but can you imagine how difficult handling petrol for the first time was when it was first discovered 146 years ago?

It’s a long shot to say that the aviation industry will adopt LOX and overhaul their fleets to make carbon-neutral flying a day to day business. But it is not a distant shout to say projects where petrol is being made from atmospheric co2 https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/environment-and-conservation/2018/06/petrol-made-carbon-sucked-air#:~:text=Imagine%20driving%20up%20to%20your,it%20with%20hydrogen%20from%20water.


May see significant jumps forwards into research that enable it to be financially viable.


The surprising fact is that going to mars is going to solve some of the most significant sustainability issues the human race faces. Like LOX fuel, many of the challenges of living on an aseptic planet will be sustainability based. Perfecting circular economies of fuel, nutrients, oxygen, and all other resources is an absolute necessity when we think about life on another planet. The solutions to these extreme challenges will, much like a formula one research has trickled into industrial road car safety, trickle down into out terrestrial every-day lives.


The reality is that we are currently in the midst of the worlds largest pandemic in history and a massive economic crash. In the next ten years, we need to curb the rate of global temperature increase to prevent a 2oC increase, or we will see a 50% loss in crop productivity. The trickle of useful information on sustainable innovation from SpaceX is probably only going to come to fruition properly after the ten-year mark. But at least the Mars missions will not be having a significant role in causing the crisis so long as they keep the manufacturing process carbon footprint to a minimum.


Stay safe, live well, live green!


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