Is Branson Leading the Race for Eco-Friendly Space Travel?

You’d be quick to think that space travel isn’t exactly the most eco-friendly transport option. Rocket fuel, engine costs, consumption and its construction surely cannot be good for the environment.

Where to Start?

Space travel is a tricky concept to turn eco-friendly

It takes a hell of a lot of resources to put a vehicle into space, and you’d be right in thinking that not all of those resources are harmless.

Resources such as hydrazine (used in rocket fuel) is an incredibly powerful propellant, but it’s also toxic and corrosive. So, what’s being done to change this?

A few organisations – NASA being on of them – are now looking into green propellant alternatives to hydrazine. The new replacement must cost less, be less hazardous and also able to break down into harmless components, in order to prevent waste from polluting our environment.

Richard Branson Leads the Eco-Friendly Space Charge

Branson is the owner of Virgin Media and now has his own spacecraft company

Space travel isn’t exactly the cheapest form of travel. However, Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Group) claimed in 2009 that the engineering concept would be

“Very environmentally friendly [.] The [carbon] cost of us putting someone into space will be less than flying to London and back on a commercial plane.”

During 2009, pilots conducted several flight tests of the space vehicle, aptly named Eve. Eve – named after Branson’s mother – was designed to transport SpaceShipTwo along with two pilots and six astronauts, reaching heights above 50,000 ft above Earth’s surface.

What makes these aircrafts different, is that they’re powered by hybrid rockets, and don’t assume they’re not as powerful as previous hydrazine-fueled rockets.

Branson’s rockets could hit a suborbital altitude of around 360,000 ft and that was in 2009.

Now, Branson is working on Virgin Orbit – which focuses on launching small satellites into space via its LauncherOne orbital launch vehicle. He is still adamant that space travel should be affordable and eco-friendly:

“Let’s open space to many more missions by dramatically decreasing the price of each flight. We’re doing exactly that with LauncherOne—but with satellites instead of people.”

 Fuel Emissions & Fuel Savings

Virgin Atlantic have a landing strip in California’s Mojave Desert and built a “spaceport” close to Truth or Consequences, in New Mexico.

The terminal and hangar facilities are designed with the environment concerns top of the list. Foster & Partnersknown for a great many projects, including the National Bank of Kuwait and their innovative plans to build a Skycycle above London’s train stations – have designed solar-thermal panels for the facilities. A passive cooling system is also in place, allowing hot air to be drawn in from the outside and chilled though a series of concrete tubes.

Co2 emissions per passenger would add up to around 60% of a passenger’s carbon footprint on a round-trip between New York and London. The mothership (Eve) is responsible for 70% of the spaceflight’s CO2 emissions, but this must carry SpaceShipTwo into the stratosphere.

Both spacecrafts are also ingeniously made out of carbon-composite materials – meaning they’re light, fairly cheap to make and incredibly strong.

Branson’s Work Adopted and Evolving

Piccard has taken inspiration from Branson’s innovative designs

Andre Piccard, a well-known Swiss adventurer was so inspired by Branson’s eco-friendly outlook that he has begun developing an experimental aircraft of his own using these materials.

Virgin’s use of a mothership will also save much more fuel than traditional ground-based launches, claimed Rob Anderson (University of Cambridge scientist). The Cambridge University’s ‘Spaceflight’ programme see’s its team deliver a payload to space as cheaply and efficiently as possible. The figure was $32,000 which is relatively cheap given how much standard procedures cost. The team sent a helium balloon to a height of 18.6 miles and the rocket then blasted solo to an elevation of 62.1 miles.

These experiments have seen Branson’s work evolve over almost 10 years, and he’s continued his promise of eco-friendly spaceflight.

A Quick Glance At Branson’s Spaceflight Journey:

2004: Sir Richard founds Virgin Galactic, claiming the first launch will take place in 2007

2007: Three workers die in an explosion during testing of SpaceShipTwo. New Mexico agrees to build $250m spaceport, Spaceport America

2008: Sir Richard says that the maiden voyage will take place within 18 months

2009: Sir Richard says that flights will launch from Spaceport America within two years. SpaceShipTwo is unveiled.

2010: Virgin Galactic snags George Whitesides, Nasa’s chief of staff, as its new chief executive. Sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi, Aabar, secures 32pc stake in Virgin Galactic for $280m.

2014: Sir Richard claims that first commercial flight will take place in early 2015. Later in the year there is a fatal accident during a test launch of SpaceShipTwo.

2015: Virgin Galactic announces deal with OneWeb. The company prepares for the mass production of LauncherOne.

2016: Test flights of SpaceShipTwo resume

2017: Successful first glide flight test

In terms of eco-friendly space travel, it’s quite clear that Richard Branson is headlining the show. However, companies such NASA have been contributing in their own for over a decade with their solar arrays and fuel cells to Earth-observing satellites, eco-friendly aircrafts, climate models and air/water/waste recycling systems.

It looks like space travel doesn’t have to be as hazardous as we first thought!

Author: Ben Taylor

Eco Warrior! Recycling Buff! Owner of James Waste Management LLP, UK recycling over 90% of waste.

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