Project Highlights:

  • First estimate of air pollution and climate impact of rockets since the Space Race
  • Determine the impact of future as these become cheaper and more frequent
  • Work with supervisors who are leaders in their respective fields

Rockets are frequently launched into space and it’s getting cheaper and easier to do so. Even the UK has ambitious plans to host its own horizontal and vertical launch sites. Rocket launches are at very high temperatures and the fuel includes a mix of chemicals that, when released into the atmosphere, can lead to the formation of toxic air pollutants and potent greenhouse gases. Nobody really knows the true global impact of rocket launches on air quality, climate and the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

In this project, the student will gather existing data on rocket launches (timing, location, type of fuel) from the Space Race starting in 1957 to the end of 2020 and also conduct a literature search to estimate the type and magnitude of air pollutants released during takeoff and, in the case of return rockets, landing. This information will be used to build an inventory of emissions that will then be implemented in the widely used global 3D GEOS-Chem model (http://acmg.seas.harvard.edu/geos/). Results from the model will be used to determine the contribution of rocket launches to changes in air quality, climate, and the chemical composition of the atmosphere today and whether increased launches in the future are cause for concern.

No prior experience in modelling is required. The student will be trained in the necessary computational skills by the University of Leicester Research Computing staff and by the lead supervisor who has over 10 years’ computer modelling experience. The student will become part of the dynamic and inclusive international GEOS-Chem User Community and have the opportunity to travel to local and international conferences and science meetings to present results from this work.


Earth orbital manned mission launch at Kennedy Space Center on 12 April 1981[photo credit: NASA]


Use efficient data mining techniques to determine the location, timing, trajectory, and type of fuel used for rocket launches from 1957 to the end of 2020.

Conduct an extensive literature review for reported estimates of the rate of release of air pollutants from rocket launches.

Map air pollutant emissions from rockets in 4-dimensions (latitude, longitude, altitude, time).

Simulate the GEOS-Chem model with and without the mapped emissions and use the difference to calculate the impact of rocket emissions on the environment.

Infer the environmental impact of the increased frequency of rocket launches in the future.

Training and Skills

No prior experience in computer modelling or data processing languages is required. Training in these will be provided at University of Leicester by Research Computing staff and the lead supervisor. There are also opportunities to attend additional computer modelling and data processing training courses offered by the NERC National Center for Atmospheric Science (NCAS). Additional training is provided via the dedicated GEOS-Chem YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCyh8HWxxxiBCy30xXU8_UDQ) and at Capacity Building workshops as part of the lead supervisor’s routine group meetings.




Year 1: Map the location, timing and trajectory of rocket launches from the Space Race to the end of 2020. Conduct an extensive literature review to determine the likely air pollutant emissions from different types of rocket fuel to develop the inventory of rocket emissions.

Year 2: Apply the inventory to the GEOS-Chem chemical transport model to calculate the perturbation to air quality, the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and climate.

Year 3: Predict likely future emissions based on projections of increased rocket launches in the future. Work experience (3-month placement) at Lockheed Martin.


Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

The successful candidate will work with researchers in the Earth Observations Science (EOS) and Space Research Centre (SRC) at University of Leicester, become part of the inclusive international GEOS-Chem User Community, and have the opportunity to work for 3 months at Lockheed Martin who are providing CASE support for this studentship.

Further Details

This project has been selected as a CENTA Flagship project. This is based on the projects fulfilment of specific characteristics e.g., NERC CASE support, collaboration with our CENTA high-level end-users, diversity of the supervisory team, career development of the supervisory team, collaboration with one of our Research Centre Partners (BGS, CEH, NCEO, NCAS), or a potential applicant co-development of the project.


For queries about the studentship, please contact Eloise Marais (eloise.marais@le.ac.uk).

Addional details about the Marais Research Group at University of Leicester can be found here: http://maraisresearchgroup.co.uk/.