After a series of successful rocket launches, many have touted that Elon Musk’s private aerospace manufacturer SpaceX has revolutionized the aerospace industry. After all, SpaceX recently succeeded in designing reusable rockets and are giving companies hope for extraterrestrial commercial routes. However, a recent study has found that one of the company’s launches actually caused a tear in the ionosphere.
Last August, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Taiwanese Earth observation satellite into orbit made a ionospheric hole. According to a study by Earth Science researchers at the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan, most rockets have a diagonal trajectory after launch, producing small shockwaves that do not significantly disturb the ionosphere. The Falcon 9, however, had a vertical ascension that caused a massive shockwave four times the size of California!
The ionospheric hole was formed due to a chemical reaction between the rocket’s exhaust plumes and the charged particles in the ionosphere. Thankfully, it returned to normal after two hours. However, if the number of commercial rocket launches increases, especially those with vertical ascension trajectories, we could be faced with significant ionosphere variations that could impact our daily lives. One serious ramification is the distortion of GPS signals, with the ionospheric hole caused by the Falcon 9 affecting GPS readings by about 1 meter. As described by the study:
“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.”
The risk these launches pose for today’s GPS dependent signals are not negligible. Not only would it inconvenience travelers using their phone’s GPS, but it could compromise delicate situations like army operations.