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Rockets and spacecraft have trashed Earth's stratosphere with tons of hazardous metals

The space age has unintentionally marked its presence on one of the most untouched realms of the Earth – the stratosphere – with tons of toxic metals. Recent findings suggest that the frequent voyages of spacecraft and satellites are significantly impacting this pristine layer of the atmosphere, with potential consequences for the climate and the ozone layer.

The study was led by Dan Murphy, an adjunct professor at Purdue University and a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The researchers utilized advanced tools attached to the nose cones of planes to collect air samples from more than 11 miles above the Earth’s surface. 

Metals in the stratosphere

The team discovered a notable amount of metals, in the form of aerosols, lingering in the atmosphere. The primary suspects for this metallic presence are the increasing numbers of spacecraft and satellite launches and returns.

Dan Cziczo is head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at Purdue’s College of Science. He has been studying the stratosphere for decades.

“We are finding this human-made material in what we consider a pristine area of the atmosphere.” said Cziczo.

Spacecraft alloys

In a concerning revelation, the team detected the presence of over 20 elements in the atmosphere, with ratios mirroring those found in spacecraft alloys. 

Shockingly, metals such as lithium, aluminum, copper, and lead – stemming from spacecraft reentry – surpass amounts of the same metals originating from natural cosmic dust. 

Furthermore, close to 10% of significant sulfuric acid particles, which play a crucial role in safeguarding and maintaining the ozone layer, contain these spacecraft metals.

Study implications 

Given the current rate of space exploration, it is estimated that as many as 50,000 additional satellites could enter orbit by the year 2030. This means that in the coming decades, nearly half of the stratospheric sulfuric acid particles could contain these reentry metals. 

However, the broader implications this might have on our atmosphere, ozone layer, and life on Earth are still subjects of mystery and concern.

Importance of the stratosphere

The stratosphere, often compared to the calm and untouched surface of the deep ocean, primarily exists beyond the reach of our daily lives. It exists above the troposphere, where most of Earth’s life and activities occur. 

The stratosphere is more than just a tranquil layer; it is the fortress that houses the ozone layer – Earth’s protective shield against harmful ultraviolet radiation. Without it, the evolution of life on Earth would have been doubtful, and its absence could endanger the continuation of life.

In the 1980s, the ozone layer was endangered due to the rampant use of chlorofluorocarbons. Global collaborations have only recently started yielding positive results in mending the damage.

Changing particles

Cziczo noted that while meteors regularly burn up in the atmosphere, leaving a trail of ions, the composition of these “meteoritic particles” has been undergoing a change, leading scientists to question the cause. 

This change does not stem from the meteors but instead from the rise in the number of human-made spacecraft and the metals they leave behind in the stratosphere.

Future implications

Spacecraft launches, which were once quite rare, have now become frequent occurrences. Due to advancements in technology and relaxed regulations, a multitude of nations and corporations can launch into space. 

Meteorites, Earth’s initial “space delivery system,” fall through our atmosphere daily. The friction and heat from our atmosphere strip these meteorites of material in a manner quite similar to human-made objects. But with the increasing number of rockets like Falcon, Ariane, and Soyuz propelling into space, the balance is shifting.

“Changes to the atmosphere can be difficult to study and complex to understand,” said Cziczo. “But what this research shows us is that the impact of human occupation and human spaceflight on the planet may be significant – perhaps more significant than we have yet imagined. Understanding our planet is one of the most urgent research priorities there is.”

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More about the stratosphere

Unseen yet crucial, the stratosphere is a protective global shield, playing an essential role in supporting life on Earth. By understanding this atmospheric layer, we can grasp its contribution to various earth and biological processes.

As mentioned above, the stratosphere represents the second major layer of Earth’s atmosphere, lying above the troposphere and below the mesosphere. Starting at about 10 kilometers (6 miles) above the Earth’s surface, it extends upwards to approximately 50 kilometers (31 miles). Within this region, we encounter unique thermal characteristics and essential chemical interactions that sustain terrestrial life.

Temperature dynamics

The temperature within the stratosphere defies the norm observed in the layers directly above and below it. While temperature typically decreases with altitude, it actually increases the higher you go in the stratosphere. This reversal is due to the absorption of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the Sun by the ozone layer, which converts harmful rays into heat. This process not only warms the stratosphere but also crucially blocks a significant amount of UV radiation from reaching Earth, protecting all forms of life.

Ozone layer: Earth’s protective shield

Residing within the stratosphere, the ozone layer acts as Earth’s sunscreen, filtering out potentially harmful UV radiation that can cause skin cancer, cataracts, and other health issues, as well as have detrimental effects on plants and wildlife.

The ozone layer’s health is vital, and human activities, particularly the emission of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), have been known to cause depletion, leading to what is commonly known as the “ozone hole.” In addition, as mentioned previously, metals left in the stratosphere from spacecraft are causing an undetermined amount of harm to Earth’s protective shield.

Weather patterns

Beyond UV protection, the stratosphere significantly influences weather and climate. It houses jet streams — fast-flowing air currents — that guide weather patterns and storm paths across the globe. Additionally, phenomena like sudden stratospheric warming can drastically alter weather conditions, demonstrating the stratosphere’s direct impact on our day-to-day lives.

Call for preservation

The delicate balance within the stratosphere can be easily upset by human activity, such as the metals left behind from spacecraft. Recognizing this, global initiatives such as the Montreal Protocol have been instrumental in reducing substances that harm the ozone layer. These efforts are not just about protecting a layer of the atmosphere, but about safeguarding the Earth’s environment and, by extension, the health and wellbeing of all species that inhabit our planet.

The stratosphere, a silent guardian of life on Earth, is integral to maintaining the balance of global systems, both biological and climatic. Understanding and preserving its integrity is an ongoing scientific endeavor that holds the key to sustaining life as we know it. Through continued research and protective measures, we can ensure that the stratosphere continues to shield our planet from the Sun’s harmful radiation and contributes to the Earth’s climatic stability for generations to come.

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