Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Estimate of the carbon footprint of astronomical research infrastructures


The carbon footprint of astronomical research is an increasingly topical issue with first estimates of research institute and national community footprints having recently been published. As these assessments have typically excluded the contribution of astronomical research infrastructures, we complement these studies by providing an estimate of the contribution of astronomical space missions and ground-based observatories using greenhouse gas emission factors that relates cost and payload mass to carbon footprint. We find that worldwide active astronomical research infrastructures currently have a carbon footprint of 20.3 ± 3.3 MtCO2 equivalent (CO2e) and an annual emission of 1,169 ± 249 ktCO2e yr−1 corresponding to a footprint of 36.6 ± 14.0 tCO2e per year per astronomer. Compared with contributions from other aspects of astronomy research activity, our results suggest that research infrastructures make the single largest contribution to the carbon footprint of an astronomer. We discuss the limitations and uncertainties of our method and explore measures that can bring greenhouse gas emissions from astronomical research infrastructures towards a sustainable level.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Carbon intensity versus time since launch or start of operations for space missions and ground-based observatories.
Fig. 2: Distribution of the carbon footprint of astronomical research infrastructures that exist worldwide as derived using the bootstrap method.

Data availability

All data used for this work are available for download at

Code availability

All code used for this work is available for download at


  1. IPCC: Summary for Policymakers. In Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis (eds Masson-Delmotte, V. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, in the press).

  2. Guterres, A. Guterres: the IPCC report is a code red for humanity. United Nations (2021).

  3. Marshall, P. J. et al. Low-energy astrophysics. Preprint at (2009).

  4. Matzner, C. D. et al. Astronomy in a Low-Carbon Future Canadian Long Range Plan for Astronomy and Astrophysics White Paper LRP2020 (2019);

  5. Williamson, K., Rector, T. A. & Lowenthal, J. Embedding climate change engagement in astronomy education and research. Bull. Am. Astron. Soc. 51, 49 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  6. Stevens, A. R. H., Bellstedt, S., Elahi, P. J. & Murphy, M. T. The imperative to reduce carbon emissions in astronomy. Nat. Astron. 4, 843–851 (2020).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. Le Quéré, C. et al. Towards A Culture of Low-carbon Research for the 21st Century (Tyndall Centre, 2015).

  8. Rosen, J. A greener culture. Nature 546, 565–567 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Hamant, O., Saunders, T. & Viasnoff, V. Celebrate sustainable travel at conferences. Nature 573, 451–452 (2019).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  10. Burtscher, L. et al. The carbon footprint of large astronomy meetings. Nat. Astron. 4, 823–825 (2020).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  11. Barret, D. Estimating, monitoring and minimizing the travel footprint associated with the development of the Athena X-ray Integral Field Unit. Exp. Astron. 49, 183–216 (2020).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  12. Jahnke, K. et al. An astronomical institute’s perspective on meeting the challenges of the climate crisis. Nat. Astron. 4, 812–815 (2020).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. Space System Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Guidelines ESSB-HB-U-0051 (ESA LCA Working Group, 2016);

  14. Maury, T., Loubet, P., Serrano, S. M., Gallice, A. & Sonnemann, G. Application of environmental life cycle assessment (LCA) within the space sector: a state of the art. Acta Astronaut. 170, 122–135 (2020).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Breitenstein, A. Base Carbone (ADEME, 2021);

  16. Wilson, A. R. Advanced Methods of Life Cycle Assessment for Space Systems. PhD thesis, Univ. Strathclyde (2019).

  17. Geerken, T., Vercalsteren, A. & Boonen, K. User experience of the ESA LCA handbook and database. In 3rd Clean Space Industry Days (ESTEC, 2018);

  18. Friedlingstein, P. et al. Global carbon budget 2020. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 12, 3269–3340 (2020).

  19. Hickel, J. Quantifying national responsibility for climate breakdown: an equality-based attribution approach for carbon dioxide emissions in excess of the planetary boundary. Lancet Planet Health 4, e399 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Alleva, L. Taking time to savour the rewards of slow science. Nature 443, 271 (2006).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. Hunter, J. D. Matplotlib: a 2-D graphics environment. Comput. Sci. Eng. 9, 90–95 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Austin, J., Huesing, J., Soares, T. & Innocenti, L. Developing a standardised methodology for space-specific life cycle assessment. In Challenges in European Aerospace, 5th CEAS Air & Space Conference (Aeronautics & Aerospace Europe Platform, 2015).

  23. Chanoine, A. Environmental impacts of launchers and space missions. In Clean Space Industrial Days, October 25th 2017 (ESTEC, 2017);

  24. De Santis, M. et al. Environmental impact assessment of space sector: LCA results and applied methodology. In Proc. 4th CEAS Conference (eds Melin, T. et al.) 364–373 (Linköping Univ. Electronic Press, 2013).

  25. Maury, T. Consideration of Space Debris in the Life Cycle Assessment Framework. PhD thesis, Univ. Bordeaux (2019).

  26. Aujoux, C., Kotera, K. & Blanchard, O. Estimating the carbon footprint of the GRAND project, a multi-decade astrophysics experiment. Astropart. Phys. 131, 102587 (2021).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. GRAND FAQ. CNRS (2021).

  28. The E-ELT Construction Proposal (ESO, 2012).

  29. FAQ VLT/Paranal. ESO (2021).

  30. Chardonnet, C., Diaz, I., Lemaître, M. & Pinon, L. Synthèse de l’enquête sur les coûts complets et ressources des infrastructures de recherche de la feuille de route nationale 2016 (DGRI/SPFCO/B4, 2016);

  31. Lodewijk, W. Europe’s Quest for the Universe (EDP Sciences, 2006).

  32. Flagey, N., Thronas, K., Petric, A. O., Withington, K. & Seidel, M. J. Estimating carbon emissions at CFHT: a first step toward a more sustainable observatory. J. Astron. Tel. Instrum. Syst. 7, 017001 (2021).

  33. Simons, D. 2019 CFHT Annual Report (Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Corporation, 2019);

  34. Ariane 5 ECA. ESA (2021).

  35. E-ELT telescope overview. ESO (2021).

  36. Song, G. Carbon footprint of a scientific publication: a case study at Dalian University of Technology, China. Ecol. Indic. 66, 275-282 (2015).

  37. 2021 Global Observatory Directory (Go Astronomy, accessed 11 August 2021);

  38. Payne, M. List of Observatory Codes (Minor Planet Center, accessed 11 August 2021);

  39. Espinosa, J. M. R. Geographical and Gender Distribution of Individual and Junior Members (International Astronomical Union, accessed 4 August 2021);

  40. Ahn, S.-H. Economic power, population, and size of astronomical community. J. Korean Astron. Soc. 52, 159–172 (2019).

Download references


We thank R. Arsenault for the insights that he provided on the carbon footprint estimates of ESO infrastructures and sites. We furthermore thank M. de Naurois, C. Duran, Z. Fan, C.-U. Lee, A. Klotz, K. Kotera, K. Tatematsu and S. O’Toole for having provided data that were useful for this research. In addition, we thank N. Flagey, L. Pagani, G. Song, M. Smith-Spanier and A. Ross Wilson for useful discussions and K. Lockhart and S. Blanco-Cuaresma for their help with ADS. This research has made use of NASA’s Astrophysics Data System Bibliographic Services. In addition, this work has made use of the Python 2D plotting library matplotlib21.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



J.K. gathered the activity data, made the estimates of the emission factors, estimated the carbon footprints and drafted the paper. All authors defined the analysis method and the IRAP carbon footprint attribution method, elaborated on the discussion section and reviewed the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jürgen Knödlseder.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Peer review

Peer review information

Nature Astronomy thanks Andrew Wilson, Robin Arsenault and Lewis Ball for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary text, references and Tables 1 and 2.

Supplementary Data 1

Data used for the paper.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Knödlseder, J., Brau-Nogué, S., Coriat, M. et al. Estimate of the carbon footprint of astronomical research infrastructures. Nat Astron 6, 503–513 (2022).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing