There has been a re-awakening in space travel. Aside from an increasing number of recent SpaceX satellite launches, as well as trips to the International Space Station (ISS), a test of new landing systems via the New Shepard, and soon, Virgin Galactic’s first space tourism launch.
For now, the number of space launches in recent years has been around 80 to 90 per year, a relatively small number. Statista indicates that there were 95 space rocket launches in 2019. But those numbers will probably up with the commercialization of space and in preparation for upcoming US Artemis missions to the Moon and eventually to Mars.
Some are beginning to wonder what all these launches are doing to the environment. To date, the impact seems small, especially in comparison to avionic travel and other sources of air pollution. But a study by the Aerospace Corporation on rocket emissions published a couple of years ago suggests reasons to be cautious about the future. The study argues that, as launches increase, policymakers will begin to wonder what damage is being caused by increasing space launches and if regulations might be necessary.
There are emerging technologies that might serve as other sources of energy or provide a different way to enter space. Renewable energy sources for industry and commercial use, as well as the electrification of the automotive and transportation world, might yield promising results for future space launches. But it is really possible to break earth’s gravitational pull without the explosive force of chemically-based rocket fuel? How much energy is needed to lift a rocket into a low earth orbit (LEO) trajectory?
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According to a post on Quora, the amount of energy needed to launch a rocket into space varies from 5.4 megajoules to approximately 333 Megajoules of energy, just to get into that plane of orbit. And that's excluding energy lost from air resistance and heat. Could modern battery technology achieve that amount of energy to potentially power a rocket into space?
The answer is yes. But this line of reasoning is a trap, one that violates Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The problem is not one of energy but rather one of the differences between the atmosphere and the vacuum of space. While batteries are certainly used to power rockets once in space, they cannot propel rockets from the Earth into space. Here’s why.
Newton’s Third Law states that every action – such as propelling a rocket into space – requires an equal and opposite reaction. In traditional chemical rockets, fuel is burned to create propulsion. The result is that the rocket moves in the opposite direction, into space. But to satisfy the equal and opposite reaction using a battery as the energy source would require the expelling of mass out of the back of the rocket.
Elon Musk responded to this question years ago in his Twitter fed: