Rocket launches are extreme events, for both animals and humans.
“When the [space] shuttle lifts off, main engines roar so loud that a person standing near the pad would be killed, not by the heat from the exhaust, but by the noise of the engines,” Rodney Rocha, former chief structural engineer at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, She said in a 2005 interview with the space agency.
With the number of annuities rocket launches on the rise, those impacts will be felt more broadly. 2022 alone saw 180 successful takeoffs, a record led by SpaceXwhich sent a rocket into orbit on average once every six days, according to a Nature report released in January. Back on land, the effects of these launches on nearby wildlife, especially endangered species, are not well documented.
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“If it happens every week, every few days, are there any implications?” said Lucas Hall, a wildlife ecologist at California State University, according to Nicola Jones of nature. “This hasn’t been studied.”
Hall and his colleagues are working to change that. The team secured nearly $1 million in funding from the US Army Corps of Engineers over three years to observe the short- and long-term impacts of rocket launches on endangered birds and other animals that reside near Vandenberg Space Force Base in central California.
Vandenberg has historically hosted five to 15 rocket launches each year. By 2030, however, that number is expected to rise to at least 50 to 100 takeoffs per year, according to the Nature report. The impact on wildlife could be significant: the base spans an impressive 99,600 acres (40,300 hectares), covers 42 miles (68 kilometers) of coastline, and is home for 17 endangered plant and animal species — one of higher concentrations of threatened or endangered flora and fauna in the continental United States.
As part of the new study — which researchers outlined last month at the 184th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Illinois — the team will investigate how endangered wildlife near the spaceport, which includes hawks Northern aplomados, and the grayish-brown birds called plovers, behave before, during, and after rocket launches.
They plan to use cameras to capture the animals’ reactions to takeoffs and special sound recorders to document changes in birdsong. The research team, made up of wildlife biologists and acousticians, is trying to pin down a hitherto vague measure: How loud is too loud?
Broadly speaking, researchers know that noise, particularly from human sources, can have two types of impact on animals: hearing loss, which also masks some audio cues, and psychological effects such as stress. Some researchers believe that chronic noise pollution may also have long-term impacts on animal behavior, including changes in how birds detect alarm calls, which are vocal expressions by which many animals warn each other about predators.
In a September 2022 studyFor example, researchers have found that birds living near airports, where noise levels are significantly higher than in residential areas, regulate the timing and frequency of their song. In some cases, they sang early in the morning “to buy more uninterrupted chanting time before air traffic starts,” the study found. However, much of the long-term impact of anthropogenic noise on animal behavior remains unknown.
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One of the Vandenberg project researchers, Kent Gee, an acoustic physicist at Brigham Young University in Utah, had previously measured the noise levels of NASA’s powerhouse launches Saturn V rocket. The rocket, which sent Apollo Astronauts on the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s hit a record 204 decibels during liftoff, Gee and his colleagues found.
For perspective: listening to sound from an airliner, which reaches between 120 and 160 decibels, for more than 30 seconds is considered dangerous. Prolonged exposure to sounds above 90 decibels causes permanent hearing loss, according to the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide similar guidance: Hearing loss can occur in less than two minutes of exposure to 110 decibels, with pain and damage to the ear at 120 decibels.
Gee was also part of a different studio that recently found that of NASA Space launch system megarocket reached 136 decibels during an unmanned launch Orion spacecraft to the moon on Artemis 1 mission last fall. The noise level, that was measured placing the microphones at five different sites approximately one mile (1.6 km) from the launch pad was “exceeding pre-launch predictions” according to the study.
Currently, rocket launches, including those taking off from Vandenberg, uses tons of water as the main element to suppress the noise of the rocket engines to some extent. This helps protect the launch vehicle and its payload from extreme acoustics, but it is not known whether this is sufficient to also safeguard nearby wildlife in the long term.
Findings from the newly launched study should help evaluate changes to launch schedules to protect wildlife, such as further reducing launch noise or avoiding launches during breeding seasons, according to the Nature report.
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