SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Created a Hole In Earth's Atmosphere During a Launch

Tuesday, 27 March 2018 - 8:14PM
Earth
SpaceX
Tuesday, 27 March 2018 - 8:14PM
SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Created a Hole In Earth's Atmosphere During a Launch
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Of course, any rocket heading into space will have to break through several levels of the Earth's atmosphere. But it's not common for a rocket launch to leave behind a giant hole in the atmosphere.

Which makes it interesting that a new study published in Space Weather has determined that a SpaceX launch from last August left a 559 mile (900 kilometer) hole in the Earth's upper atmosphere while its Falcon 9 rocket blasted through with the Taiwanese Formosat-5 satellite. 

The hole was big enough to disrupt GPS systems as water vapor from the rocket's exhaust mixed with charged particles/plasma in the Earth's ionosphere and caused them to split apart. Although the hole sealed back up within two to three hours.



This is an unusual phenomenon caused by the Formosat-5 mission's trajectory: it flew straight up, which is actually a rare occurrence in rocket launches. Most rocket launches take on a curved trajectory to avoid negative effects of gravity, although that's tough to notice when you're watching from ground level.

But this time, because the payload was so small - the Formosat-5 satellite is only 1,047 pounds (475 kilograms) - SpaceX deemed the rocket light enough that it could survive a vertical launch to 450 miles (720 kilometers) above the Earth's surface.

While it was passing through the Earth's ionosphere level at 37 to 620 miles (60 to 1,000 kilometers) above the ground, enormous circular shockwaves were left behind that rivaled a volcanic eruption in terms of power. The shockwave itself was about four times the size of California in size, and the researchers behind the new study were able to use GPS signals to analyze the ionosphere and see just how much SpaceX roughed it up.




Since the hole fixed itself up so quickly, there don't seem to be any longterm problems left behind from the mission. But holes like this can impact GPS signals sent from satellites as they pass through the ionosphere, possible causing errors before they reach Earth's surface.

The average person probably wouldn't face any GPS troubles in this case, but they're noticeable enough that military instruments would probably catch them. So that's something future researchers will have to look into more.
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