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SpaceX rockets are blowing holes in the atmosphere: the effects are still not entirely clear

SpaceX rockets are blowing holes in the atmosphere: the effects are still not entirely clear

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About 90 minutes after the SpaceX rocket was launched, a red glow could be seen in the sky. It is still unclear whether this phenomenon has an effect.

BOSTON – Rocket launches can create temporary holes in the upper ionosphere, and research has known this for many years. This creates a red light similar to the northern lights (technical term: aurora borealis). SpaceX rockets have been launching for several years, causing a different phenomenon in the sky – the so-called “SpaceX vortex”. But now, researchers are drawing attention to another phenomenon they attribute to SpaceX rockets: the “SpaceX Aurora.”

The phenomenon is an almost spherical red glow that can be seen in the sky with the naked eye for up to ten minutes. “We see two to five of them every month,” explains Stephen Hamel of the McDonald Observatory in Texas. Reverse The red glow occurs about 90 minutes after a SpaceX rocket launches because that’s when something important happens: The second stage of the SpaceX rocket fires its engine for about two seconds to leave its orbit and crash into the Atlantic Ocean — the so-called “de-orbit burn.”

A SpaceX rocket releases exhaust gases into the atmosphere, causing a red glow

“During ignition, the engine releases about 400 pounds of exhaust gases, mainly water and carbon dioxide. All of this happens at an altitude of about 300 kilometers, near the top of the ionosphere, creating a hole,” explains Jeff Baumgarder, a space physicist at Boston University. “Big.” The fuel causes ionized oxygen atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere to turn into ordinary gas molecules – thus emitting red light. This temporarily creates a hole in the ionosphere, which closes again after a few minutes.

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“The resulting aurora can be very bright and easy to see with the naked eye,” explains astronomer Hamel. They’re brighter than Starlink satellites, but only for a few seconds. The question remains: Are “SpaceX’s aurora borealis” dangerous or even good? Scientists disagree.

The impact of SpaceX’s rocket launch on astronomy is not yet clear

“The frequency of these red clouds may increase if SpaceX plans more launches in the future,” confirms Hamel, who and his observatory stick to dark skies at night. “Their impact on astronomical science is still being evaluated. Starlink satellites are a known problem, but the impact of rocket launches themselves is a growing area of ​​interest.”

Space physicist Baumgarder, on the other hand, sees it differently: “We’re excited about launching rockets. It gives us the opportunity to explore how space traffic affects the ionosphere. The density of the ionosphere varies from night to night, so by observing many events we can learn about the efficiency of the chemistry.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch. (Archive photo) © IMAGO/Pat Benic

SpaceX is launching more and more rockets into space

So far in 2023, SpaceX has launched 87 rockets (as of November 29, 2023), and in 2021 there have been only 31 launches. There will likely be a few rocket launches by the end of 2023, and the number of SpaceX launches is also expected to continue to increase in the coming years. So there should be more “SpaceX aurora” visible in the sky. (unpaid bill)