Shuttle launches spray waste metals into surrounding waters

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  • Published: Apr 23, 2014
  • Author: Steve Down
  • Channels: Chemometrics & Informatics / MRI Spectroscopy / X-ray Spectrometry / Base Peak / Proteomics / NMR Knowledge Base / Atomic / UV/Vis Spectroscopy / Raman / Infrared Spectroscopy

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Kennedy Space Centre is at the heart of the US space exploration program and has seen the launch of many rockets, some of which have carried the Space Shuttle. I’ve even had the pleasure of seeing a shuttle launch myself on a vacation to Florida. While it is difficult to argue against the value of these missions, they do leave behind a less welcome legacy.

Every shuttle launch generates about 450,000 kg of particulates from the solid rocket motors which are supplemented by chips of paint and other material that is blasted off. A lot of this material is metallic, like aluminium from the fuel, iron which is added as a catalyst, and zinc from the launch pad coating. Hydrogen chloride is also produced from the ammonium perchlorate present. All of this is deposited in the neighbourhood of the launch site and presents an environmental threat.

The extent of the hazard has been assessed by scientists in the US who have measured the levels of 19 metals in surface water collected from 11 sites around KSC from 1996-2009. They also tested water from neighbouring sites in 2009 following one launch, particularly the nearby Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, but increased the scope to 48 metals, as they explained in Environmental Science and Technology.

For the waters in close vicinity to the launch site, the metals found in decreasing order of their concentrations were Na, Mg, K, Al, Fe, Zn, Mn, Ni, Mo, Cu, As and Pb. The levels did not increase over the 14-year test period but there were temporary increases in the presence of Al, Fe, Mn and Zn after a launch. There was also a large spike in the levels of metals at the more distant sites. As the researchers explained, the increases could derive directly from the launch plume but there might also be a contribution from the sediments which would be stirred up by the ferocity of the launch.

The temporary nature of the metal increases points to a bioremediation process, perhaps by precipitation or absorption by biota, that disperses the metals once they fall into the water. This prompted the team to consider using sediments rather than water, but there might be complications resulting from the shallow nature of the local water systems which encourage metal redistribution.

Having found these metals, the next stage must be to assess the effects they have on the local flora and fauna, to see if they are toxic or influence them in other ways. It would also be interesting to see if there are any risks associated with the temporary post-launch increase in concentrations.

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