The evaluation points out that the Falcon 9 rocket launched July 19 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California likely punched a hole in the ionosphere – a layer around the Earth made up of matter’s fourth plasma state, with a sea of electrically charged particles floating about 80 to 650 km (50 to 400 miles) above the surface.
Reviewing images from the launch, space physicist Jeff Baumgardner of Boston University in the US said it was “quite possible” that an ionospheric “hole” was created by the launch.
“It’s a well-studied phenomenon when rockets burn their engines 200 to 300 km (about 120 to 190 miles) above the Earth’s surface,” he told Spaceweather.com.
Previous research has shown that with the increasing number of rocket launches around the world, such holes are increasingly common in the ionosphere, making radio communications possible on Earth.
The ionosphere is also dynamic and grows and shrinks according to solar conditions. It is classified into subregions called D, E, and F based on the wavelength of solar radiation that 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 the Earth.
The movement of rockets through the ionosphere has also been shown to generate large disturbances that travel faster than the speed of sound and generate shock waves in the layer.
Like fast rockets zoom to the edge of spacethey tend to spray water and carbon dioxide in their exhaust, which could reduce the ionization process by more than two-thirds, according to research.
This is particularly the case in the F layer of the ionosphere, which has the highest electron density among the subregions.
Holes “drilled” into the ionosphere by rockets are identified by their characteristic red color due to oxygen ions in this layer reacting with electrons from the rocket exhaust.
This releases light in the same wavelength as red auroras, experts said.
A previous SpaceX launch also caused a hole in the ionosphere.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched in August 2017, carrying Taiwan’s Formosat 5 satellite induces “gigantic circular acoustic shock waves” into the ionosphere about five minutes after liftoff.
As the rocket carrying the singular payload passed directly through the ionosphere, it was found to have created a circular shock wave across the layer.
A study on the phenomenon, published in the journal Space weatherdiscovered that about 10 minutes after liftoff, a giant hole had been created in the ionosphere.
“The rocket exhaust plume then created a large-scale (~900 km diameter) ionospheric plasma hole with depletions of 10-70% of TEC relative to baseline days,” the scientists wrote in the study.