Do rockets punch holes in the ozone layer?

17 May 2009

Question

Do rockets punch holes in the ozone layer?

Answer

Chris Smith - Well, Fran, we know that the major culprit for making holes in the ozone layer are chemicals called CFCs - chloro-fluoro carbons. These are agents that were used in aerosols - even in asthma inhalers - but also in fridges as refrigerants; they were used in huge amounts until the Montreal Treaty came in, in the late 80s to try and ban them.

What provoked that was that a group of scientists including Brian Gardner (who appeared here on The Naked Scientists a few years back) had actually noticed this massive hole opening up over Antarctica; this hole actually grew to be the size of Australia at its peak.

Luckily it did eventually stop growing, and it's actually beginning to shrink a little bit now and that's because we have stopped using these CFC chemicals.

The reason that they concentrate down in the Antarctic where the hole formed is because the Antarctic is an isolated continent. It's completely surrounded by ocean and this creates something called a circumpolar current, and this has a whirlpool-like effect on the air; this draws in and concentrates these CFC molecules over the Antarctic during winter, when it's very dark.

The CFCs then accumulate in high clouds over the Antarctic. When the sun comes out the following spring, UV in the sunlight attacks and breaks down the CFCs and they get turned into reactive chemicals that can react with ozone and deplete it. They are, by far, in a way the worst culprit.

As far as rockets are concerned, we don't send enough rockets and spaceships up into space to make a huge difference, I wouldn't have thought, in grand scheme of things.

So I think although we have to be environmentally conscious, the benefit of sending rockets into space in terms of what they can do for satellites and furthering research is far greater than the small bit of damage they might make to the ozone layer.

Comments

Agreed but what about the future when you can book a Trip to Mars rockets day in and day out. What I'm saying is this is a problem for the future we need to start to think about.

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