After a series of successful rocket launches, it seemed that SpaceX could do no wrong. Led by Elon Musk, the private aerospace manufacturer started revolutionizing the industry, proving that reusable rockets are possible and giving companies an opportunity to explore commercial routes outside of Earth. Yet, a study revealed that one of the company’s launches actually caused a tear in the ionosphere.
Last August, a Falcon 9 rocket that was carrying a Taiwanese Earth observation satellite into orbit made a ionospheric hole. Is that unusual? Well, yes. According to this study, most rockets have a diagonal trajectory after launch, producing small shockwaves that do not disturb our everyday lives. SpaceX’ rocket though, had a vertical ascension and caused a massive shockwave, four times the size of California!
This happened due to the chemical reaction triggered by the rocket’s exhaust plumes when they came into contact with the charged particles. Thankfully, the ionosphere returned to normal after two hours.
If the number of commercial rocket launches increases, we could be faced with significant ionosphere variations that would distort GPS signals, causing unexpected errors:
“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”, states the report.
You can imagine the risks such launches could pose for today’s systems that depend on GPS, especially those used in the army.