SpaceX Falcon 9 Ripped a Plasma Hole in Earth's Ionosphere

A SpaceX rocket launched last year tore a hole in a part of Earth’s upper atmosphere ionized by solar and cosmic radiation, according to a new study published in the journal Space Weather.

Researchers report the culprit was a Falcon 9 that lifted off on August 24, 2017, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Carrying Taiwan’s Formosat‐5 satellite, the rocket sent off huge circular shock acoustic waves (SAWs) that permeated throughout Earth’s atmosphere. “This is the largest rocket‐induced circular SAWs on record, extending approximately 114–128 degrees West in longitude and 26–39 degrees North in latitude (roughly 1,500 km in diameter), and was due to the unique, nearly vertical attitude of the rocket during orbit insertion,” the study’s researchers wrote. A plume from the rocket exhaust ripped a hole in the ionosphere about 900-km wide (560 miles). For context, that’s about four times the size of California.

 Image from SpaceX's Formosat-5 mission

Flickr / Official SpaceX Photos

Rocket launches, volcanoes, and other massive events can temporarily disturb the ionosphere. But this launch — unusual as it was — didn’t seem to cause lasting problems to the GPS navigation in Earth’s atmosphere. Though the plasma hole disappeared after about two to three hours, SAWs from the launch caused the total electron content in the ionosphere to dip by about 70 percent. That’s some seriously powerful stuff.

The scientists on this study, who used computer modeling to reproduce the effects of this launch on the ionosphere, say research like theirs will be useful in understanding how rockets can impact Earth’s upper atmosphere. As private space entities like SpaceX plan on sending rockets into space at unprecedented frequencies, this seems like a good idea.

“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,” the researchers write.

Thankfully nothing got too screwed up this time. Still, there’s something about reading the words “giant plasma hole” that feels surreal.