Elon Musk’s SpaceX may have ‘punched hole’ in edge of space with rocket launch

A photographer captured a SpaceX rocket leaving behind an aurora-like red glow after it punched a hole in the ionosphere.

By Vishwan Sankaran,
Published by The Independent, 26 July 2023

A rocket launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX last week from California may have punched a hole in the Earth’s ionosphere, a new analysis suggests.

The assessment points out that the Falcon 9 rocket launched on 19 July from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, likely punched a hole in the ionosphere – a layer around Earth consisting of the fourth state of matter plasma, with a sea of electrically charged particles floating at about 80-650km (50-400 miles) above the surface.

Reviewing footage from the launch, space physicist Jeff Baumgardner from Boston University in the US, said it was “quite possible” that an ionospheric “hole” was made by the launch.

“This is a well studied phenomenon when rockets are burning their engines 200 to 300km (around 120 to 190 miles) above Earth’s surface,” he told Spaceweather.com.

Previous research has shown that with the increasing number of rocket launches across the world, such holes are becoming more common in the ionosphere, which makes radio communications on Earth possible.

The ionosphere is also dynamic and grows and shrinks based on solar conditions. It is categorised into sub-regions called D, E and F based on what wavelength of solar radiation a layer absorbs.

Studies have shown that rockets and their exhaust flames can alter the process by which charged particles form in this layer around Earth.

Rocket motion through the ionosphere has also been shown to generate large disturbances which travel faster than the speed of sound and generate shockwaves in the layer.

As fast-moving rockets zoom towards the edge of space, they tend to spray out water and carbon dioxide in their exhaust that could decrease the ionisation process by over two-thirds, research has shown.

This is particularly so in the ionosphere’s F-layer, which has the highest density of electrons among the sub-regions.

Holes “punched” in the ionosphere by rockets are identified by their signature red colour due to the oxygen ions in this layer reacting with the electrons from the rocket exhaust.

This releases light in the same wavelength as red-auroras, experts said.

A previous SpaceX launch had also caused a hole in the ionosphere.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched in August 2017, carrying Taiwan’s Formosat 5 satellite induced “gigantic circular shock acoustic waves” in the ionosphere about five minutes after liftoff.

As the rocket carrying the singular payload went straight up through the ionosphere, it was found to have created a circular shockwave on the layer.

A study on the phenomenon, published in the journal Space Weather, found that about 10 minutes after liftoff, a giant hole was created in the ionosphere.

“The rocket-exhaust plume subsequently created a large-scale ionospheric plasma hole (~900km in diameter) with 10-70 per cent TEC depletions in comparison with the reference days,” scientists wrote in the study.

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