In a recent SpaceX rocket launch, a temporary hole was punched in the ionosphere surrounding our planet, as reported by spaceweather.com. The Falcon 9 rocket, launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX on July 19 from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base, is known for its reusable, two-stage design aimed at transporting people and payloads into Earth orbit and beyond. With 240 launches and 198 landings under its belt, Falcon 9 is considered the world’s first orbital-class reusable rocket.
During the July 19 launch, photos captured a faint red glow, which caught the attention of space physicist Jeff Baumgardner from Boston University. Upon reviewing the footage, Baumgardner suggested that the red glow indicated the creation of a hole in the ionosphere.
“This is a well-studied phenomenon when rockets are burning their engines 200 to 300 km above Earth’s surface,” Mr. Baumgardner explained to spaceweather.com.
He further elaborated, “I reviewed footage from the July 19th launch. It shows the second stage engine burning at 286 km near the F-region peak for that time of day. So, it is quite possible that an ionospheric ‘hole’ was made.”
The ionosphere, situated on the edge of space and filled with charged particles called ions, plays a crucial role in creating geomagnetic storms and auroras. It also affects the reflection and modification of radio waves used for communication and navigation. A hole in the ionosphere can impact GPS systems, slightly altering location accuracy, but the effects were relatively minor this time, according to Newsweek.
However, with the advancement of more powerful rockets and frequent launches, the impact on the ionosphere could become more significant, potentially leading to greater effects on GPS systems in the future.
“Humanity is entering an era where rocket launches are becoming more frequent due to reduced costs with reusable rockets. Simultaneously, we are developing more powerful rockets to explore other planets. These factors may gradually affect the middle and upper atmosphere more, and that is worthwhile to pay some attention to,” said Charles CH Lin of the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan.
Interestingly, this is not the first time the Falcon 9 rocket has caused such an event. Similar incidents occurred during the launch of Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in 2017 and June 2022, resulting in holes in the ionosphere’s plasma due to the rocket’s unique trajectory.
While rocket advancements are crucial for space exploration, it is equally important to monitor their potential effects on Earth’s atmosphere as space missions become more commonplace.