Three weeks to tell the Civil Aviation Authority what you think about the environmental impact of letting Richard Branson fire rockets into space from Newquay

Posted By on 22nd July 2022

By Peter Tremayne

Members of the public have a little over three weeks to register their thoughts about the environmental impact of launching space rockets from Newquay.

The Civil Aviation Authority has set a deadline of 19th August for a public consultation exercise intended to inform the necessary licensing of Cornwall’s spaceport.

The CAA deliberations and final judgement will be taken against a background of record temperatures and wildfires destroying homes and consuming much of the countryside.  Most scientists now accept that current environmental conditions are a direct consequence of man-made carbon pollution, leading to severe climate change.

The CAA licence is an essential prerequisite for operating the launch facility and the timescale might – just – lead to a September take-off for Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit company.  With a new Prime Minister due to be in place by 6th September, the political imperative to maximise a flag-waving photo-opportunity could be overwhelming.

The public consultation seems certain to reignite the debate over how launching rockets into space will impact Cornwall’s ambition to become carbon-neutral by 2030.  The CAA will also need to consider how often the Newquay spaceport might be used.

The debate is particularly acute in the case of Mr Branson’s horizontal-launch technology, which relies on a decades-old design of rocket motor.

The exhaust from Mr Branson’s Newton engines deposits a type of carbon known as “hard soot” which is even more polluting than other types of rocket fuel.

A 2019 Exeter University study, by Penryn-based Dr Dr Xiaoyu Yan, and commissioned by Cornwall Council, relied on data supplied by Virgin Orbit.

It referenced a nine-year-old peer-reviewed academic paper “Potential climate impact of black carbon emitted by rockets” but attached little weight to that document’s main findings – largely on the grounds that very few rockets would actually take off from Newquay.

The 2010 academic paper, written by Martin Ross, Michael Mills and Darin Toohey, warned: “A global climate model predicts that emissions from a fleet of 1,000 launches per year of suborbital rockets would create a persistent layer of black carbon particles in the northern stratosphere that could cause potentially significant changes in the global atmospheric circulation and distributions of ozone and temperature.”

Several other peer-reviewed academic papers draw similar conclusions, pointing to the “black soot” hard carbon waste produced by the kerosene-based rocket fuel which propels Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit system.

The climate impact of this black soot is far greater than conventional combustion engines, particularly as it is released high in the atmosphere.

The scientists continued: “We estimate that for HC‐fueled rockets, the climate impact of BC soot emissions dominates over CO2 emissions by a factor of about 105 , for as long as the launches continue. The strong response likely results from unique altitude, persistence, and asymmetric nature of the rocket‐produced BC soot layer…..our result, if confirmed, could have important climate and ozone related regulatory or economic implications for HC‐fueled rockets.”

A more recent scientific study reported: “Particles injected into the stratosphere absorb and reflect solar energy, changing the flow of radiation in the atmosphere, heating the stratosphere and cooling the surface, respectively.

“This radiative forcing has the effect of changing the Earth’s albedo and so the amount of solar energy injected into the atmosphere.  These thermal changes also deplete the ozone layer.”

The CAA said:  “To carry out spaceflight activity in the UK spaceport and launch operators must be licensed by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

“As part of their licence application, spaceport and launch operators are required to submit an Assessment of Environmental Effects (AEE). The purpose of the AEE is to ensure applicants have adequately considered any potential environmental effects of their intended activities and, if necessary have taken steps to avoid, mitigate or offset the risks and their potential effects.

“Virgin Orbit are applying for a launch operator licence. Spaceport Cornwall are applying for a spaceport licence. This consultation sets out the joint AEE from Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall.

“The proposals are for Virgin Orbit to undertake two horizontal launches per year from Spaceport Cornwall (at Cornwall Airport Newquay) until 2030. The launch system, assessed for the purposes of the AEE, consists of a modified Boeing 747 aircraft, carrying an air launched two stage rocket under its wing.

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"The carrier aircraft will travel to an altitude of approximately 35,000 feet where the rocket is released, its engine fired, and it then ascends to the desired orbit where the satellite payload is released. The trajectory begins with the release of the rocket west of the UK and southwest of Ireland and continues south-southwest over the Atlantic Ocean.

“Spaceport Cornwall are applying to operate as a spaceport to facilitate Virgin Orbit’s launch proposals.

“For its proposed launch from Newquay Virgin Orbit has applied for a marine licence from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) that is also open for public consultation. If you wish to comment on the marine licence, please click here and enter case reference MLA/2022/00134, this will be found in the public representation section.

“For spaceport and launch operator licences the CAA must take into account the applicant’s assessments and the proposed measures to mitigate any significant environmental effects before a recommendation for approval can be granted.

“More information on the CAA’s approach to public consultation can be found by reading the following guidance document (CAP2352).

Views invited

“We encourage you to share any feedback on the AEE, including any potential effects on you and your local environment.

“In your comments, please consider the following:

  • the identified environmental effects and the assessment of these effects
  • if proposed mitigation methods are appropriate or where further mitigations may be required
  • any gaps, improvements, or corrections to the AEE.

“We will consider comments received when deciding whether to grant the licence and any relevant licence conditions. Following the outcome of our assessment, we will publish information on our final decisions and associated reasoning related to the AEE.”