SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket causes disruption in Earth’s ionosphere

Jul 26, 2023, 10:13 AM UTC
2 mins read
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket causes disruption in Earth's ionosphere
(Photo courtesy of SpaceX)

In a recent rocket launch event, Elon Musk‘s SpaceX may have inadvertently impacted the Earth’s ionosphere, as suggested by a new analysis. The Falcon 9 rocket, which took off on July 19th, 2023, from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, is believed to have created a disruption in the ionosphere, a layer around Earth containing plasma – the fourth state of matter comprising electrically charged particles floating at altitudes between 80-650 km (50-400 miles) above the surface.

Space physicist Jeff Baumgardner from Boston University, while reviewing footage from the launch, expressed the likelihood of the rocket having caused an ionospheric “hole.” This phenomenon is not entirely unheard of, especially when rockets burn their engines at altitudes of 200 to 300 km (approximately 120 to 190 miles) above the Earth’s surface. Interestingly, previous research has indicated that the growing number of rocket launches worldwide is leading to an increase in such ionospheric disturbances, which, in turn, contribute to improved radio communications on Earth.

The ionosphere is far from static; it is a dynamic layer that fluctuates based on solar conditions. Divided into sub-regions known as D, E, and F, these layers absorb different wavelengths of solar radiation. Rocket launches and their exhaust flames have been found to influence the process of charged particle formation within the ionosphere. Moreover, the motion of fast-moving rockets through this layer generates large disturbances that travel faster than the speed of sound and create shockwaves within the ionosphere.

Rocket exhaust often contains water and carbon dioxide, which can significantly decrease the ionization process in the ionosphere by more than two-thirds, particularly within the F-layer, where the electron density is highest among the sub-regions. These disturbances can lead to the formation of “punched” holes in the ionosphere, recognizable by their distinctive red color due to the reaction of oxygen ions in the layer with electrons from the rocket exhaust, resulting in the release of light in the same wavelength as red auroras.

This incident is not the first time a SpaceX launch has potentially impacted the ionosphere. In August 2017, the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying Taiwan’s Formosat 5 satellite generated “gigantic circular shock acoustic waves” in the ionosphere shortly after liftoff. The rocket’s trajectory cut through the ionosphere, leaving behind a circular shockwave on the layer’s surface. Subsequent research on this phenomenon revealed the creation of a significant ionospheric plasma hole, approximately 900 km in diameter, with 10-70 percent TEC (Total Electron Content) depletions compared to reference days.

Source: The Independent

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

More in "Science"

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x