Why is Virgin Orbit in the business of satellite launch? We’re here because we care deeply about improving access to space for the good of everyone on Earth. We also believe that, as Richard Branson puts it, business must be a force for good in the world.
A big part of that is making sure we understand all of the consequences of our work, including our impact on the environment both in space and on the ground.
By far the biggest impact our business has on the environment will come from the lessons learned from the satellites we launch. Satellites have a long history of being critical to the environmental movement, helping us understand our changing climate, monitoring illegal fishing and logging operations, aiding in disaster relief operations — the list goes on and on.
Space data has also made life on Earth incredibly more efficient. The measurements satellites beam back from space help the agriculture industry use less water and less fertilizer; the shipping industry use less fuel; and the airline industry spend less time flying in hold patterns. When talking about such large-scale industries — the international shipping industry alone generates more than 900 million metric tons of CO2 annually — then even incremental changes can have enormous impacts. Imagine if the data from a new constellation of satellites launched on LauncherOne helped improve the efficiency of the shipping industry by one percent of one percent: that single change alone would reduce carbon emissions more than many years of our manufacturing and operations.
In addition to being proud of our contribution to those missions, we also think a great deal about the direct impacts of our actions. As a small, air-launched rocket sending satellites to low orbits, our launch system is inherently a relatively green system compared to others — but we’re not content to rest on our laurels.
The Space Environment: Our New Ocean
Outer space is a lot like our oceans, in the sense that for ages and ages people have treated it like a giant rubbish bin that never fills up. We as a society can’t afford to think like that anymore.
To borrow a sentiment from the Hippocratic Oath, the space industry’s response has begun with “first, do no harm.” Rocket and satellite operators around the world have begun to attempt to leave as little as possible behind, and to control what does get left behind so that it won’t linger in potentially hazardous orbits. Specifically, most responsible companies are working to comply with the United Nations Guidelines that call for debris to be deorbited within 25 years.
That’s a good start, but we think compliance needs to become even more standard, and that the 25-year number should be even lower.
For our part, we anticipate doing far better than that 25-year standard. On the vast majority of our missions, all of our material will re-enter within 5 years — and often substantially sooner.
And as unappealing as space junk seems, recent history has shown that not all space debris gets there by accident or as a necessary byproduct of space transportation. Earlier this year, India joined the list of nations that have deliberately destroyed one of their own satellites in orbit, creating large debris fields that will persist for many years. The facts are simple: demonstrating anti-satellite weaponry is a risk no entity should take if we want to enjoy a safe and stable environment in LEO. The consequences are too severe and too unpredictable.
As we move forward into commercial operations, we also look forward to stepping beyond that “first, do no harm” mantra and to actively contribute to clean-up efforts. We’re thrilled to see not just one but multiple small satellite companies developing active debris clean up and mitigation technologies, packing tons of innovation into small spacecraft. We’d be extremely excited to fly these types of missions to LEO, so if you are an innovator with a great clean-up idea, drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re hopeful that the U.S. government does not get left behind when it comes to studying orbital debris. A robust government program focused on actively researching debris mitigation would do wonders to accelerate our understanding of the issue — and truly, it’s something we need to tackle as a unified collective.
Our Favorite Planet is Planet Earth
The space environment is important, but there’s another environment none of us can ignore: the one right here on our home world. Any company in the business of moving heavy things long distances at high speed will by necessity have some impact on the environment. The responsible thing to do is to consider that impact, measure it where one can, and mitigate it whenever practical.
We are in the process of following that plan. The key factor here is the fact that small, lightweight spacecraft are so much more capable than they once were. Just as with terrestrial shipping, anytime one can send a smaller package, the climate impact is likely to be less — often by a significant amount. On top of that, we derive some additional benefits from the fact that our system is air launched by an incredibly reusable, upcycled flying launchpad.
Thanks to those factors, the total climate impact of a LauncherOne mission to space is roughly equivalent to what you’d get if you flew a 747 from our home base of Long Beach, CA, to, say, Seattle, WA. In other words: definitely not zero, but also quite a small impact in the scope of our industry, to say nothing of the world. Even in a future where we are flying on a weekly basis, our total impact in one year would still be less than one hour’s worth of flights from LAX.
A recent scientific study commissioned by Spaceport Cornwall and carried out by Exeter University further illustrates that point. According to the study, Cornwall’s proposed horizontal launch spaceport would produce emissions totaling between 0.04% and 0.1% of Cornwall’s total annual carbon footprint.
Indeed, Dr. Xiaoyu Yan, Senior Lecturer in Energy and Environment at the University of Exeter, notes: “The magnitude of these emissions is relatively low compared with total CO emissions in Cornwall,” and would do little to impede Cornwall’s efforts to reach a carbon neutral economy by 2030.
That’s a reasonable start, but we’d like to do more. So we’ve got plans already kicking into motion, ranging from the small, like phasing out disposable cups at our factory in favor of reusable mugs, to the large.
For as long as we have been a company, we have long been laser-focused on our quest to complete our first launch and to get into the business of providing first-class launch services to our customers. But waiting for the perfect moment to become completely sustainable often results in never taking action at all, and we’re not content to do that.
Regulators, satellite makers and operators, launch service providers, and beyond — we all need to be active participants in this conversation. And as we work to propel human curiosity to new heights, we’re guided by Richard Branson’s dream of using space to improve the lives of Earthlings across the planet. Good stewardship of the environment is a top priority for Virgin Orbit, and we intend to do our part.