A remarkable new report claims that the SpaceX rocket punched a gigantic hole in the ionosphere.
When SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket in August 2017, it smashed a giant hole in the plasma of the ionosphere that lasted for hours and may have affected GPS, an astonishing new report claims. The hole was huge, stretching 559 miles, and it last for 3 hours and had the effects of a localized magnetic storm.
It happened because of the unique situation of this particular SpaceX rocket, because it was carrying an abnormally light payload. Most rockets use a curved trajectory to handle the loads of gravity and stress on the rocket, but because this Falcon 9 rocket had such a light payload, it punched straight upward through the ionosphere.
It was not a big problem in this one instance, but it does raise some concern about larger rocket launches that happen more frequently will affect the GPS position that we rely on so completely in this day and age. It may even affect how rockets are designed in the future.
“On 24 August 2017, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket departed from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, carrying Taiwan’s FORMOSAT‐5 Earth observation satellite into orbit,” states the abstract of the paper, published in AGU. “The lightly weighted solo payload enables the rocket to fly a lofted trajectory for direct insertion at the mission altitude of 720 km. This unique nearly vertical trajectory is different from the usual satellite launches that the rockets fly over horizontal trajectory and insert satellites at 200 km altitude followed by orbit maneuvers to its mission altitudes.
“Consequently, the rocket launch generated a gigantic circular shock wave in the ionosphere covering a wide area four times greater than California. It is followed by ionospheric hole (plasma depletions) due to rapid chemical reactions of rocket exhaust plumes and ionospheric plasma. The ionospheric hole causing large spatial gradients could lead to ~1 m range errors into GPS navigation and positioning system. Understanding how the rocket launches affect our upper atmosphere and space environment is important as these anthropogenic space weather events are expected to increase at an enormous rate in the near future.”