Oh. My. Golly. What a shot. Taken in 1998, this awesome image shows NASA’s Lunar Prospector spacecraft shooting into the sky above Cape Canaveral, riding an Athena II rocket. Destination is in sight. Captured in time exposure, the fiery launch tail forms an arch in the foreground, while the moon, near its first quarter phase, looks on, some 250,000 miles away. Prospector will cover the distance in about 5 days. Prepare for blast-off as we explore stunning photos of space launches and wonder what it all means from an environmental point of view.
The Prospector mission carried an array of instruments to map the surface composition and other facets of the Earth’s only natural satellite. The results improved our understanding of the Moon’s origin, evolution and resources, yet we still managed to make our mark there in what some might see as a slightly bungling and absurd manner. From its orbital vantage point, just 63 miles above the Moon’s surface, Prospector was deliberately crashed into a crater near the lunar south pole in a failed attempt to detect the presence of water. Maybe it was worth a shot.
Speaking of shots, check out the one above. It’s another stunner. According to NASA’s website: “Birds don’t fly this high. Airplanes don’t go this fast. The Statue of Liberty weighs less. No species other than human can even comprehend the event. The launch of a rocket bound for space inspires awe and challenges description.” Nice words to accompany an even nicer image. What is it that so challenges description? The Space Shuttle Atlantis, lifting off to drop by on the International Space Station in 2001. It’s a case of blink and you’ll miss it with Atlantis, which is due to be retired in 2010.
This next humdinger depicts Atlantis’s sister Space Shuttle Endeavour as it races into space on an International Space Station assembly mission in 2008. The spectacle was captured from the Florida waterfront by an amateur photographer, though he should consider himself something of a pro after taking this shot. More a pillar of smoke than a fiery arc, the glow amidst the encroaching darkness and almost tornado-like formation of the plume are nonetheless tremendously beautiful. You wonder whether the reason these photos are so striking is that the spacecraft themselves aren’t in them.
Well let’s see. Here we see a picture of Endeavour from a different angle as it rockets into the night sky on the same record-breaking 16-day mission to deliver the first part of the Japan’s Kibo lab and a Canadian robotic arm to the Space Station. Is the launch less aesthetically pleasing now? Perhaps we’re on the wrong track here; perhaps what matters is less the visible beauty of the launch than the sublime fact that spaceflight is advancing the knowledge of humankind. Even so, a glance at those exhaust fumes does raise the question of how much space launches are detrimental to the environment. So what is the price of this greater good?
Apparently, the amount of shuttle fuel consumed in one of these launches is equivalent to just two minutes of gasoline consumption in the US in a day. The exhaust gas of the main engines is furthermore made up of water vapour and so does not harm the atmosphere. There are still carbon emissions to consider, and the solid fuel propellants used produce clouds that could impact on the local environment. Still, many other human activities have such effects and that plume is not as damaging as people might suspect.
Shuttle launches undoubtedly affect the environment, both directly with their emissions and indirectly through the energy expenditure of manufacturing propellants and parts. However, this pales in comparison with the amount of pollution caused around the clock by air travel. What’s more, each launch is part of the bigger picture that is space exploration, the long-term benefits of which may far outweigh its costs as we overcrowd our small planet. We leave you with a shot of the soon-to-be defunct Space Shuttle Atlantis launching at sunset, the shadow of its plume, cast across the sky, intersecting with the rising full moon.