SpaceX launch leaves debris scattered for miles, prompting anger over environment

The disintegration of SpaceX’s new Starship rocket over the Gulf of Mexico may be what hit the headlines last week – but regulators and environmentalists are more concerned about an explosion that took place during take-off.

The shattering force of the launch in South Texas sent a cloud of pulverized concrete raining over the town of Port Isabel, six miles away, according to a preliminary report by federal agency the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The biggest impact was debris from the launch pad that was damaged by the thrust from the Super Heavy booster.

“Impacts from the launch include numerous large concrete chunks, stainless steel sheets, metal, and other objects hurled thousands of feet away” from the pad, according to the report.

It also cited “a plume cloud of pulverized concrete that deposited material up to 6.5 miles northwest of the pad site.”

Residents of Port Isabel reported finding a fine layer of sand-like material after the launchpad floor was largely demolished during liftoff. No one was hurt, and no dead birds or wildlife were found on lands owned or managed by the refuge, the agency added.

Scientists and campaigners said the incident raised important questions about the state of environmental protections as the world geared up for more and bigger rocket launches in the coming years.

They pointed out that there are currently no environmental protections in “orbital space”, while those connected to launches and re-entries are much more geared to safety than the environment.

They said they hoped the explosion could prove to be a valuable learning experience that may pave the way for greater environmental scrutiny of space exploration and, in turn, tighter regulations.

“The scale of the damage reported in the US Fish and Wildlife Service assessment about the SpaceX launch is highly concerning. It highlights the need to put environmental matters at the very center of the launch process and to strengthen the requirements of environmental assessments,” said Andy Lawrence, professor of astronomy at Edinburgh University.

“This is particularly important with more and more launches being planned – both large and small – in the coming years.

“While I believe in the commercial space industry, there’s a bit of a gold rush going on and so tough environmental regulations are very important.”

The launch took place adjacent to a national wildlife refuge near Boca Chica Beach and environmentalists said the debris showed more in-depth studies of potential hazards are needed ahead of future launches.

Jah Moriba, associate professor of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at The University of Texas at Austin, added: “The environmental protections relating to launch need to be looked at more carefully. Events like these are a learning opportunity and this is when we should say ‘Well, we shouldn’t do this the same way again – what can we do differently to minimize environmental impact?”

“We’re not going to stop launching things and we do need to extend humanity’s presence across the universe. But doing so to the detriment of the environment is a big no-no and I think this can be greatly minimized if planning is done carefully in these sorts of things,” he said.

“Going to space is hard and explosions will occur and there will be loss of life. We can’t prevent that entirely and we should expect more of these to happen, but we should learn from what occurs and there are things that we should do to minimize environmental detriments,” Dr Moriba said.

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, meanwhile, urged the governments of space exploration countries such as the UK and the US to take heed government of the launch explosion.

“Space exploration has been very important for understanding how important our planet is and what’s happened to it. Satellites have provided us with a much greater understanding on issues such as climate change than would have been possible had we not gone into space.”

“However, the appalling environmental impact of rockets, in particular very large rockets like the recent SpaceX one, is undeniable. There is absolutely no reason why this industry should be exempt from the environmental protection regulations and obligations that are placed on other industries. And if we’re about to see a big expansion in space exploration then governments need to get this sorted quickly.”

Jonathan Powell, astronomer, and astrophysicist at the Harvard–Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, said the explosion could have implications for the positioning of new launch sites.

“The bigger picture I think is that Port Isobel is quite close [six miles] to the Starship pad, twice as close as any community is to the Kennedy Space Centre pads for example. And this emphasizes that if we are going to have a bunch of new space launch sites, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to have them sufficiently isolated and yet still in a good location for all the other requirements for a space launch site, like lots of ocean or desert to the east of the pad.”

Following the aborted mission, Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, said last week that the company plans to install a water-cooling system and steel foundation for the next launch of the rocket.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) “mishap” investigation, as required by law, until SpaceX determines a cause for the rocket’s explosion after launch.

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