Rockets Punching Holes in the Atmosphere


James Lang, Online Editor

Elon Musk is at it again with the Falcon 9 Rocket, a product of his company SpaceX, with a recent launch on August 24th, 2017. The launch was unique because the Falcon 9 rockets launch vertically into the atmosphere instead of in an arc (following along the curve of the Earth) which is unlike any other rocket. For the past several months, data analysts have been crunching numbers on the effects of the launch. Scientists determined that the vertical launch tore a hole in Earth’s atmosphere almost 560 miles wide. The portion of the atmosphere specifically affected was the ionosphere, which lies in the planet’s upper atmosphere, 46 to 621 miles above the surface of the planet. The ionosphere gets its name from the fact that the sun’s solar energy ionizes the atoms in the atmosphere, which means the sun strips the atoms of an electron so they are able to act as free particles. The ionosphere is thick, and due to its high concentration of ions and free electrons, radio waves are reflected off of it. Radio waves are the main source of communication across the Earth, as they bounce off the ionosphere, to satellites, and back down to Earth.

So what does this all mean? When Elon’s Falcon 9 tore a 560 mile hole in the ionosphere, it was hardly permanent–lasting a whole thirteen minutes after launch. But it still had an impact. Due to most GPS running off of satellite radio communication, for the thirteen minutes the hole was present, satellites in that location gave a roughly one-meter miscalculation to their transmitted GPS systems. That means, all throughout the world, if a GPS signal went through that satellite near the launch zone, it would be miscalculated by one meter. Now obviously one meter for thirteen minutes is no big deal, but the question stands; what will happen when more rockets are launched?

Bank of America predicts that the space industry will be worth over $3 trillion in only thirty years, which obviously means more rockets, less downtime between launches, and possibly even commercial travel. This could mean the Earth’s ionosphere is in trouble. If rockets are continued to be launched completely vertical, which is more accurate and cost-effective than the old ‘arc’ trajectory, the ionosphere will continue to become damaged. While scientists are convinced there were no long-lasting effects from the thirteen-minute disturbance, larger and faster rockets will only punch deeper holes. Should SpaceX find a new launch method or figure out a solution for the ionosphere later down the line? This brings into question, how many rockets will it take to cause a bigger miscalculation than one meter? Is it worth the risk?