A recent analysis suggests that a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX on July 19 from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base, may have created a hole in the Earth’s ionosphere. The ionosphere is a layer around the Earth consisting of plasma, a state of matter with electrically charged particles, located at approximately 80-650 km (50-400 miles) above the surface.
Space physicist Jeff Baumgardner from Boston University reviewed footage of the launch and stated that it was “quite possible” that the rocket made an ionospheric “hole” during the launch. Such holes are a well-studied phenomenon when rockets burn their engines around 200 to 300 km (approximately 120 to 190 miles) above the Earth’s surface.
With the increasing number of rocket launches worldwide, these ionospheric holes are becoming more common. However, they play a crucial role in enabling radio communications on Earth.
The ionosphere is dynamic and its size varies based on solar conditions. It consists of sub-regions called D, E, and F, categorized by the wavelength of solar radiation they absorb.
Rocket launches can affect the charged particle formation in the ionosphere. Rocket motion through the ionosphere can generate large disturbances that travel faster than the speed of sound, creating shockwaves in the layer.
As rockets move toward the edge of space, they release water and carbon dioxide in their exhaust, which can reduce the ionization process in the ionosphere’s F-layer, where electron density is highest.
These “punched” holes in the ionosphere caused by rockets are identified by their red color, resulting from the reaction between oxygen ions in the layer and electrons from the rocket exhaust, releasing light in the same wavelength as red auroras.
This is not the first time a SpaceX launch has caused an ionospheric hole. A Falcon 9 rocket launched in August 2017, carrying Taiwan’s Formosat 5 satellite, created a large-scale ionospheric plasma hole about 900 km in diameter, leading to TEC (Total Electron Content) depletions of 10-70% in comparison to reference days.
As the number of rocket launches increases, scientists continue to study their impact on the ionosphere and its implications for communication and space research.