SpaceX's Falcon 9 Rocket Burned a 560-Mile Hole in the Atmosphere

Bill Ingalls, NASA/Getty Images
Bill Ingalls, NASA/Getty Images / Bill Ingalls, NASA/Getty Images

On August 24, 2017, Elon Musk's aerospace company SpaceX launched and landed one of its Falcon 9 rockets. While it's not the most powerful rocket in SpaceX's arsenal, the shockwaves from the trip were strong enough to tear a 560-mile-wide hole through a layer of the atmosphere, Fortune reports.

The rupture occurred in the ionosphere between 50 and 620 miles above Earth. Most rockets are able to make it past this layer without disturbing it by curving their trajectory. When a rocket flies almost parallel to the ground, it burns less rocket fuel fighting the force of gravity, leaving more to lift it and its payload past Earth's atmosphere.

For Falcon 9, this wasn't necessary: Its only cargo was an Earth observation satellite for Taiwan’s National Space Organization that weighed about 1050 pounds. This relatively light burden allowed the rocket to follow a nearly vertical route into orbit. This had an unintended consequence: As the Falcon 9's booster and second stage fired, it radiated circular shockwaves that ate through the ionosphere, leaving an opening that remained for nearly three hours.

The temporary hole didn't have disastrous effects on the environment, and it's likely that future launches with the same results won't either. (It's also not the first time a rocket has created a hole in the ionosphere [PDF].) But one area that might be affected is human technology. The ionosphere is the place where radiation from the Sun and space ionizes atoms, stripping them of one or more of their electrons and giving them a positive charge. This blanket of ions and free elections in the atmosphere reflects radio waves, making satellite or radio-based transmissions possible.

When there's a large chunk of plasma missing from the ionosphere, GPS accuracy takes a hit. According to a report in the journal Space Weather, the hole left by Falcon 9 may have caused a error of a few feet in GPS services for its duration. Under the right conditions, it's possible that rocket-caused holes in the ionosphere could throw off GPS calculations by more than 65 feet.

The shock waves of a single rocket like Falcon 9 aren't enough to cause chaos, but as rocket launches become more common, scientists will need to take a closer look at this effect.

[h/t Fortune]