Observation of stratospheric ozone depletion in rocket exhaust plumes

  • Nature volume 390, pages 6264 (06 November 1997)
  • doi:10.1038/36318
  • Download Citation
Published online:


Although modelling studies have predicted1,2,3,4,5,6,7 that particulate and reactive gas-phase species in the exhaust plume of large rockets might cause significant local ozone depletion, the actual response of the stratosphere after rocket launches has never been directly determined. Here we report comprehensive measurements that follow the evolution of stratospheric ozone in the wake of two Titan IV rockets launched on 12 May and 20 December 1996. In both cases, ozone concentrations dropped to near-zero values in the plume wake, across regions four to eight kilometres wide, within 30 minutes after launch; intense ozone loss persisted for 30 minutes after which time concentrations recovered to ambient levels. Our data indicate that the number of ozone molecules lost in the plume regions significantly exceed the number of chlorine molecules deposited by the two rockets. This suggests that a catalytic cycle based on Cl2O2, other than Cl2, and unique to solid rocket motor (SRM) plumes might be responsible for our observations. However, the limited spatial and temporal extent of the observed ozone losses implies that neither the catalytic Cl2O2 cycle nor other reactions involving exhaust compounds from large solid-fuelled rockets have a globally significant impact on stratospheric chemistry.

  • Subscribe to Nature for full access:



Additional access options:

Already a subscriber?  Log in  now or  Register  for online access.


  1. 1.

    Computer Model Predictions of the Local Effects of Large Solid Fuel Rocket Motors on Stratospheric Ozone (TR-94(4231)-9, The Aerospace Corporation, El Segundo, CA, (1994)).

  2. 2.

    , & Effect of space rocket launches on ozone and other atmospheric gases. Ann. Geophys. 10, 810–814 (1992).

  3. 3.

    Local stratospheric effects of solid-fueled rocket emission. Ann. Geophys. 11, 828–836 (1993).

  4. 4.

    Ozone depletion in the plume of a solid rocket motor. Ann. Geophys. 12, 409–416 (1994).

  5. 5.

    Possible Effect of the Chlorine Oxide Dimer on Transient Ozone Loss in Rocket Plumes (RT-94(4231)-1, The Aerospace Corporation, El Segundo, CA, (1994)).

  6. 6.

    , , , & Solid rocket motor exhaust in the stratosphere. J. Spacecraft Rockets 31, 435–442 (1994).

  7. 7.

    Local effects of solid rocket motor exhaust on stratospheric ozone. J. Spacecraft Rockets 33, 144–153 (1996).

  8. 8.

    , & Better protection for the ozone layer. Nature 367, 505–509 (1994).

  9. 9.

    Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion , Ch. 10 (Rep. no. 25, World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, (1991)).

  10. 10.

    , & The Space Shuttle's impact on the stratosphere: an update. J. Geophys. Res. 101, 12523–12529 (1996).

  11. 11.

    , & Proceedings of the Space Shuttle Environmental Assessment Workshop on Stratospheric Effects (Tech. Memo X-58198, NASA, Houston, TX, (1977)).

  12. 12.

    , & Reply to ‘Comment on the Space Shuttle's impact on the stratosphere’. J. Geophys. Res. 96, 17379–17381 (1991).

  13. 13.

    & An assessment of the TOMS for measuring ozone levels in a solid rocket motor plume. Geophys. Res. Lett. 23, 3227–3230 (1996).

  14. 14.

    , & Ultraviolet absorption photometer for measurement of ozone on a rocket-boosted payload. Appl. Optics 35, 610–614 (1996).

  15. 15.

    , & Ozone depletion in the upper stratosphere at the dawn terminator. J. Atmos. Solar Terr. Phys. 59, 1–7 (1997).

  16. 16.

    In-situ measurement of Cl2and O3in a stratospheric solid rocket motor exhaust plume. Geophys. Res. Lett. 24, 1755–1758 (1997).

  17. 17.

    Validation of CH4and N2O measurements by the CLAES instrument on the Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite. J. Geophys. Res. 101, 9679–9791 (1996).

  18. 18.

    , , & Ozone decomposition on alumina: implications for solid rocket motor exhaust. Geophys. Res. Lett. 23, 1961–1965 (1996).

  19. 19.

    and Production of Cl2O2 from self-reaction of the ClO radical. J. Phys. Chem. 91, 433–436 (1987).

Download references


We thank the NASA JSC WB-57F air and engineering crews, the ARES Mission Planning Office, and range support personnel at Vandenberg Air Force Base and Dryden Flight Research Center, for their efforts. This work is supported by the Launch Programs Office and the Office of Scientific Research of the United States Air Force.

Author information


  1. *Environmental Systems Directorate, The Aerospace Corporation, PO Box 92957, Los Angeles, California 90009, USA

    • M. N. Ross
  2. †Atmospheric and Space Physics Group, University of Houston, Houston, Texas 77204, USA

    • J. R. Benbrook
    •  & W. R. Sheldon
  3. ‡Space and Environment Technology Center, The Aerospace Corporation, PO Box 92957, Los Angeles, California 90009, USA

    • P. F. Zittel
    •  & D. L. McKenzie


  1. Search for M. N. Ross in:

  2. Search for J. R. Benbrook in:

  3. Search for W. R. Sheldon in:

  4. Search for P. F. Zittel in:

  5. Search for D. L. McKenzie in:

Corresponding author

Correspondence to M. N. Ross.


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.