Environmental life cycle assessment of reusable launch vehicle fleets : large climate impact driven by rocket exhaust emissions

Calabuig, Guillermo J. Dominguez and Wilson, Andrew and Bi, Sifeng and Vassile, Massimiliano and Sippel, Martin and Tajmar, Martin (2024) Environmental life cycle assessment of reusable launch vehicle fleets : large climate impact driven by rocket exhaust emissions. Acta Astronautica, 221. pp. 1-11. ISSN 0094-5765 (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actaastro.2024.05.009)

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After the success of the reusable Falcon 9 rocket, space actors are pursuing competitive space access by developing Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLVs). While this initiative may enhance recycling rates, it may also trigger the Jevons’ paradox as it amplifies the overall environmental footprint due to increased launch frequencies. It is therefore essential to quantify RLVs’ impacts and identify key design drivers to enable efficient design choices while mitigating undesirable environmental effects. Consequently, this article uses a space specific Life Cycle assessment (LCA) approach to evaluate the environmental footprint, in terms of climate impact, water depletion and land use, of different RLV fleets designed to serve a forecasted European space market. The results show that the LH2 fleet options have 2-8 times lower carbon footprint when compared to the LCH4 fleet as a result of lower propellant consumption and lack of black carbon emissions, suggesting that the environmental burdens are mostly driven by propellant choice. Moreover, the analysis reveals a potential underestimation of climate impacts in previous LCA’s by 2–3 orders of magnitude due to the absence of high altitude characterisation of rocket exhaust emissions and demised aluminium oxides. This increased forcing could lead to fleet choices surpassing the Earth’s carrying capacity given by its planetary boundaries. The methodology and results within this study can support further integration of launch and reentry emissions within LCA by refining modelling techniques, improving impact characterisation and quantifying uncertainties. These advancements can ultimately enable robust eco-design strategies for launch vehicles.