How the billionaire space race could be one giant leap for pollution

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The Guardian 19 July, 2021 - 09:58am 13 views

What time does Blue Origin launch?

Liftoff is set for 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) on July 20, 2021. Blue Origin will launch its first crewed mission on its New Shepard rocket July 20 to fly its billionaire founder Jeff Bezos and three other passengers to suborbital space and back. Space.comBlue Origin's Jeff Bezos launch on New Shepard: Live updates

Who's going to space with Jeff Bezos?

Along with Amazon founder Bezos and his brother Mark Bezos, Oliver will join Wally Funk, an 82-year-old aviation pioneer, aboard the New Shepard spaceflight. Funk was among the 13 women who had volunteered for and completed the “Women in Space ” Program started under the aegis of NASA in 1961. The Indian ExpressExplained: Who is the 18-year-old going to space with Jeff Bezos?

Right now, rocket launches as a whole don't happen often enough to pollute significantly.

"The carbon dioxide emissions are totally negligible compared to other human activities or even commercial aviation," NASA's chief climate advisor Gavin Schmidt told AFP.

But some scientists are worried about the potential for longer term harm as the industry is poised for major growth, particularly impacts to the ozone layer in the still poorly understood upper atmosphere.

Virgin Galactic, which came under fire in op-eds on CNN and Forbes, as well as on social media, for sending its billionaire founder to space for a few minutes in a fossil fuel-guzzling spaceship, says its carbon emissions are about equivalent to a business-class ticket from London to New York.

The company "has already taken steps to offset the carbon emissions from its test flights and is examining opportunities to offset the carbon emissions for future customer flights, and reduce our supply chain's carbon footprint," it said in a statement to AFP.

But while transatlantic flights carry hundreds of people, Virgin's emissions work out to around 4.5 tonnes per passenger in a six passenger flight, according to an analysis published by French astrophysicist Roland Lehoucq and colleagues in The Conversation.

That's roughly equivalent to driving a typical car around the Earth, and more than twice the individual annual carbon budget recommended to meet the objectives of the Paris climate accord.

"The issue here is really one of disproportionate impacts," Darin Toohey, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder told AFP.

"I actually grew up on the space program and that got me into science.... but if someone offered me a free ride, I would be very nervous taking it because I would know that my own footprint is way larger than it should be," he said.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo uses a type of synthetic rubber as fuel and burns it in nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas.

The fuel pumps black carbon into upper stratosphere, 30-50 kilometers (18 to 30 miles) high.

Once there, these particles can have multiple impacts, from reflecting sunlight and causing a nuclear winter effect, to accelerating chemical reactions that deplete the ozone layer, which is vital to protecting people from harmful radiation.

"We could be at a dangerous point," said Toohey, who wants more scientific investigations into these effects before the launches become more frequent.

Virgin has said it wants to conduct 400 flights a year.

Compared to Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo spaceplanes, Blue Origin's are much cleaner, according to a recent paper by scientist Martin Ross of Aerospace, which Bezos' company plugged on Twitter.

That's because it burns liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, which combusts as water vapor.

Ross' paper found Blue Origin's vertical launch reusable rocket causes a hundred times less ozone loss and 750 times less climate forcing magnitude than Virgin's, according to ballpark calculations.

But that doesn't mean it's totally clean.

"It takes electricity to make liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen," Ross told AFP.

"You could go back and calculate how much electricity was used to make the propellant," he said. "It depends how far back in the supply chain you look."

The impact of suborbital launches such as those by Virgin and Blue Origin pale in comparison to the impact of rockets that achieve orbit.

When SpaceX puts four private citizens into space in September, it will use its Falcon 9 rocket, which calculations show puts out the equivalent of 395 transatlantic flights-worth of carbon emissions.

"We are living in the era of climate change and starting an activity that increases emissions as part of a tourism activity is not good timing," Annette Toivonen, author of the book "Sustainable Space Tourism," told AFP.

The world is far more aware of the climate crisis now than when these companies were founded in the early 2000s and that could encourage businesses to look at ways to minimize pollution through cleaner technologies to get ahead of the problem.

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Read full article at The Guardian

Breakingviews TV: Galactic ego

Reuters 19 July, 2021 - 09:00am

Bezos versus Branson: Whose space flight is cooler?

The Straits Times 19 July, 2021 - 09:00am

Second age of the space race ruled over by commercial titans

Stuff.co.nz 19 July, 2021 - 09:00am

Humans, when we get going, really get going. Sadly, war is often the driver for innovation, but commercial competition is a potent force for turning ideas into things.

The last few weeks has seen an intensification of competitive activity in the commercial space race, with a clutch of billionaires racing to get themselves into the stratosphere and beyond. And back. Of course.

This space race is quantitatively different from that which saw Neil Armstrong take one small step for mankind. That was the result of two superpowers duelling themselves into penury rather than genuine exploration. The cost of the Apollo programme was two per cent of US GDP; history’s most expensive vanity project since the Pyramids.

Today’s aeronautical adventurers are commercial and have more in common with the rail barons of the 19th century than the bureaucrats who pioneered man’s initial journeys into space.

Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are driven, or sustained by, the pursuit of profit. It is important to appreciate that they are not only spending their own cash either; vast sums of investor money has been corralled into these enterprises from people who expect a return somewhat greater than a horrendously expensive photo op.

No commercial venture is guaranteed and these escapades may crash and burn; if you will forgive the literary flourish. But they may not. It is the prospect of their success, and those to follow, that is so exciting.

It is tempting to compare these adventures with the great explorers from the past; from Kupe to Columbus, who forged new paths for others to follow; but history can be an imperfect template for predicting the future. If we did want to reach back for parallels the eastern spice trading firms, The Dutch and English East India Companies, provide a better model.

Private enterprises, often backed with some from of state licence and largess, establish beachheads on new and hostile worlds while their governments watched and, in time, supplanted.

Whatever the near future holds, it is exciting to observe and imagine where all this is going. Musk, who at just 50 years of age has decades of adventures before him, has already announced his firm’s intention to colonise Mars.

Now, this seems a little ambitious and the history of initial colonies isn’t great, but it is tempting to dream that we are witnessing the beginning of a new epoch. The space age had to start eventually; why not with Richard Branson? From Sid Vicious to the stars.

This new era of space has something that separates it from the government driven programmes of the past; competition.

Although all three have some form of direct or indirect support from Washington, they are all using different technology and exploring divergent strategies. Some of these will work better, and cheaper, than others.

Cost is another factor that marks a break from the NASA-driven model. When you are spending your own money, pennies matter. So does safety and reputation. Part of the reason Branson flew in his own rocket was to demonstrate it was safe. Virgin will now start selling tickets, others will follow.

Space tourism, today the preserve of the gilded elite, shall follow a similar path to that of cell phones. Soon, anyone with a credit card and a sense of adventure will be able to wonder at the majesty of our small blue planet from the discomfort of orbit.

Meanwhile, the serious business of establishing permanent Lunar and Martian bases, and how to sustainably fund them, will be taxing the minds of those in the industry or with enough cash and vision to get involved.

Not everyone is impressed. The spectacle of billionaires joyriding into weightless bliss while some of us down here on terra firma struggle to cover the cost of the ever-rising price of smashed avocado has caused a few sullen faces.

Even if this space race simply degenerates into a 21st century version of the America’s Cup, those investing in these grand ambitions are becoming major employers. SpaceX, Musk’s enterprise, has over 9000 staff. They are creating opportunities not just for rocket scientists, but for the vast number of auxiliary staff and services.

This cash is being spent on wages, contractors, construction workers and restaurant staff. If you believe in the Keynesian idea that the government should spend money on welfare payments to boost the economy, it is difficult to comprehend why billionaires spending money on vanity projects will not boost the economy.

This new gold rush is creating an ecosystem for those wishing to enjoy a career in this sector. A degree and understanding of the complex mathematics involved in sending machines and people into the ether now has a practical application beyond academia.

New Zealand has even benefited, with Peter Beck’s Rocket Lab establishing a launch site in Hawke’s Bay.

If the advances in space travel mirror that which occurred in aircraft development, and we don’t destroy the civilization that underpins these adventures, humanity could be closer than we imagined to fulfilling our potential.

Sadly, I am too old to participate in this new era of exploration to come, but I hope to eek out enough years to enjoy vicariously those who possess the vigour, courage and sense of adventure to boldly go where no man, or woman, has gone before.

SpaceX's Elon Musk to visit space … with Virgin Galactic?

EarthSky 19 July, 2021 - 09:00am

A daily update by email. Science news, great photos, sky alerts.

As Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos race into space, a third billionaire is also reportedly contemplating his own adventure in space tourism: Elon Musk. He’s reserved a seat to fly with Virgin Galactic, according to the company’s founder, Branson, while speaking with The Sunday Times in London on July 12, 2021. Tickets are rumored to go for $250,000. And Musk has reportedly put down a $10,000 deposit. Just when the business magnate will venture into space, though, remains unknown.

Branson acknowledged the purchase in the interview with The Times:

Elon’s a friend, and maybe I’ll travel on one of his ships one day.

Branson made a trip to suborbital space on July 11, 2021. It marked the first fully crewed flight for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo design, which a reusable, winged spacecraft designed to carry eight people, including two pilots. And it was the 22nd spaceflight overall for this particular SpaceShipTwo, named Virgin Space Ship Unity, or VSS Unity.

With the successful launch on July 11, Virgin Galactic appears poised to meet its goal for active commercial operations by early 2022.

Musk witnessed and supported Branson’s flight from Virgin Galactic’s commercial hub, Spaceport America, in New Mexico. Branson even tweeted a picture next to a shoeless Musk in the hours before the flight.

Big day ahead. Great to start the morning with a friend. Feeling good, feeling excited, feeling ready.

Watch #Unity22 launch and livestream TODAY at 7:30 am PT | 10:30 am ET | 3:30 pm BST.@virgingalactic @elonmusk https://t.co/1313b4RAKI pic.twitter.com/FRQqrQEbH8

— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) July 11, 2021

Virgin Galactic is aimed primarily at space tourists who will be content to pay large sums for brief, suborbital experiences. The space plane portion of Branson’s recent trip lasted about 15 minutes (or about as long as Alan Shepard’s first U.S. spaceflight in 1961). It carried him more than 53 miles (86 km) above Earth’s surface. That is high enough into the sky to witness the blackness of space, see the curve of the Earth and experience brief weightlessness.

SpaceX, on the other hand, seems focused on more distant travels, like lunar flybys and delivering cargo to the moon, Mars, and beyond. Its Crew Dragon spacecraft can already venture as far as Earth orbit. And its Starship, currently in development, is designed to carry people and costly payloads farther than the moon.

In the meantime, the other billionaire making headlines is Jeff Bezos, who will ride on Blue Origin’s first crewed flight of the New Shepard on July 20, 2021. That’s assuming no technical glitches and good weather at Blue’s Origin’s West Texas launch site. His space voyage, by the way, is timed to coincide with the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Bezos will fly with his younger brother Mark Bezos and his friend, 82-year-old Wally Funk, who dreamed of being an astronaut in an era when women still weren’t allowed to make the cut. Alongside them will be 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, son of Dutch equity company Somerset Capital Partners’ CEO Joes Daemen. The younger Daemen will be replacing the anonymous $28 million (USD) bidder who initially won the New Shepard seat at auction.

Jeff Bezos is said to be the richest man in the world, although Space.com called Musk the world’s richest or 2nd-richest person behind Bezos. Guess it depends on which day that evaluation is made. That said, Musk is certainly wealthy enough to sample various suborbital offerings.

But given the long-standing rivalry between the two affluent entrepreneurs, it’s unlikely Musk will be booking a spaceflight with Blue Origin anytime soon.

Bottom line: As Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos race into space, a third billionaire pursues space tourism: Elon Musk. He’s reserved a seat to fly with Virgin Galactic, the company’s founder Branson told The Sunday Times. When the business magnate ventures into space, though, remains unknown.

Travelers' Insurance for Space Travel Could Be on the Way

Barron's 19 July, 2021 - 09:00am

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Looking for insurance for your next space flight? Help could be on the way. AXA S.A. (ticker: AXAHY), the French insurance heavyweight, is hoping to launch a new line of coverage: insurance for space travelers. 

“The product that we’re working on developing would be to insure against bodily injury to the space flight participants, themselves,” Chris Kunstadter, global head of space underwriting at AXA XL, AXA S.A.’s commercial insurance division, told Barron’s. “That’s what we’re looking at for the future.”

The AXA discussions come as two billionaires, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, have made headlines for their respective space tourism companies. Bezos’ spaceflight services business, Blue Origin LLC, is set to send a rocket into space Tuesday morning—with Bezos himself and other passengers onboard. This comes just over a week after Branson’s Virgin Galactic Holdings (SPCE) successfully completed the world’s first space tourism flight, which counted Branson among those making the trip.

Insurance experts say there is insurance against space-related mishaps for rockets and the like—but not for passengers. The market size for space insurance has recently run at about $800 million annually, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

Any new passenger insurance product is likely to be tricky for the insurers—and pricey for customers. Unlike travel insurance for the masses, the pool of people headed for space is relatively small, making the potential product riskier and more expensive.

Kunstadter said AXA has spoken with Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin for several years to understand the risks around space travel, though he declined to say whether those two companies are AXA customers. AXA has also spoken with companies specifically about the possibility of a human insurance policy offering. Blue Origin didn’t respond to Barron’s request for comment. Kunstadter didn’t disclose when the new business would be launched. 

AXA’s consumer-facing insurance offering would be a new endeavor, as it currently offers insurance against companies’ space equipment, such as satellites. Kunstadter said one of its customers is Sirius XM Holdings (SIRI), which recently sent into space a satellite that failed in orbit. AXA declined to comment on whether it was an insurer for Sirus XM for that incident. 

The space travel market has considerable growth potential, which bodes well for the potential market for insurance against it. 

Space travel spending could reach between $10 billion and $15 billion annually by 2030, said Ken Herbert, Virgin Galactic analyst at Canaccord Genuity. Virgin Galactic could see $1.7 billion in space revenue by then. “Space tours, we estimate, can be a fairly substantial market,” he said.

Write to jacob.sonenshine@barrons.com

Looking for insurance for your next space flight? Help could be on the way.

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