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The claim: Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin rocket had a carbon footprint equal to a small African nation
While the billionaires' successful space flights open the door to potential space tourism, they also come with environmental concerns.
"Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest man on earth who loves to preach to the rest of us about the need to lower our personal carbon footprint, just created a carbon footprint equal to the yearly output of small African nations on a vanity trip to space," reads a July 20 Facebook post.
A similar post adds the business magnate's rocket, named New Shepard, spewed "hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide into the air." The post is accompanied by an image of the rocket surrounded by a plume of smoke during its lift-off.
USA TODAY has reached out to the posters for comment.
To get airborne and soaring off to space, rockets need to burn a huge amount of propellant, which – depending on the type of fuel – can emit carbon dioxide, along with other pollutants like soot and nitrous gases. Carbon dioxide is the main source of all greenhouse gases.
The most common propellants are carbon-based, like the kerosene used by SpaceX's Falcon rockets. But there are somewhat cleaner alternatives that produce virtually no carbon dioxide. And this is the type of fuel Bezos' Blue Origin rocket used.
New Shepard used 'green hydrogen'
The New Shepard uses a rocket engine, called Blue Engine 3, that runs on fuel combining liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. When these elements react with each other, they generate a tremendous amount of heat and the propulsive force to get the rocket off the ground.
Since there's no carbon contained in the fuel, no carbon dioxide is emitted during the launch or into the atmosphere, Eloise Marais, an air pollution researcher at the University College London, told USA TODAY via email.
Darin Toohey, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, agreed, telling Live Science that the main emissions from Bezos' rocket would be "water and some minor combustion products, and virtually no CO2."
But water isn't as benign as one might be inclined to think. In the upper atmosphere, it and other chemical byproducts can actually damage the environment.
"(New Shepard) did emit large quantities of pollutants – NOx and water vapor – that deplete ozone in the layer that protects us from harmful UV radiation," Marais wrote. "The water vapor that Blue Origin emits also forms clouds in the upper atmosphere that alter climate."
This effect was also noted by Toohey and atmospheric scientist Martin Ross in a 2019 paper where they warn "water vapor emissions from individual launches can notably impact the mesosphere and ionosphere" – the two atmospheric layers closest to the edge of space.
It's important to note, however, rocket launches aren't a major contributor of carbon emissions. That is, not yet.
In general, one rocket launch produces around 200 to 300 tons of carbon dioxide, with about four passengers. By comparison, one long-haul plane flight produces about one to three tons per passenger, Marais told The Guardian.
So even if Bezos' rocket did produce this typical amount of carbon dioxide, it would be a fraction of that produced by any small African nation. Seychelles, the smallest nation, produced about 620,000 tons of carbon emissions in 2018, according to data from The World Bank.
But plane flights of course occur more frequently and there were only 114 attempted orbital launches worldwide during 2020.
Our rating: False
Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin rocket had a carbon footprint equal to a small African nation. Bezos' rocket, named New Shepard, relied on an engine that uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as a propellant. The rocket's main emissions were water vapor and other combustion products, but not carbon dioxide. However, experts say water vapor and other chemicals trapped in the atmosphere can still pose harm to the climate.
Our fact-check sources:
U.S. Energy Information Administration, May 21, Where greenhouse gases come from
Everyday Astronaut, March 20, 2020, How much do rockets pollute?
SpaceX, accessed July 27, Falcon 9
Blue Origin, accessed July 27, New Shepard
Blue Origin, accessed July 27, Vehicles & Engines
Eloise Marais, July 26, Email interview with USA TODAY
LiveScience, July 19, How much will Jeff Bezos' New Shepard rocket warm the planet?
Eos, Sept. 24, 2019, The Coming Surge of Rocket Emissions
The Guardian, July 19, How the billionaire space race could be one giant leap for pollution
The World Bank, accessed July 28, CO2 emissions (kt) - Seychelles
NASASpaceFlight.com, Dec. 30, 2020, Year in Review: Mars missions, Lunar Samples, Crew Launched from the US, and Starlink
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Jeff Bezos' New Shepard rocket launch didn't emit carbon