Astronomers discovered a new type of aurora and created a temporary hole in the ionosphere from the fall of a SpaceX rocket booster. Photo/SpaceX/Live Science
TEXAS – Astronomers discovered a new type of “aurora” and created a temporary hole in the ionosphere from the fall of a SpaceX rocket booster. Experts fear this blood-red light could cause unknown problems for astronomy and communications.
Researchers have known for decades that launching rockets into space can create holes in the upper ionosphere. The ionosphere is the part of the atmosphere between 80 and 644 kilometers above the Earth’s surface where gases ionize or release electrons.
This ionospheric hole can stimulate gas molecules in the atmosphere and trigger bright red lines like aurora lights. Scientists warn that these “SpaceX auroras” that look like bright red balls of light could cause problems, although the details are not yet known.
For example, in July, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying Starlink satellites into orbit, punched a hole over Arizona that stained the sky blood red. Then, in September, a US Space Force rocket accidentally blew a hole in the ionosphere over California, which created a faint red glow.
Now, astronomers at the McDonald Observatory in Texas have spotted a similar but unique red glow appearing long after SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket left Earth’s atmosphere. This light, according to the Spaceweather page, is an ionospheric hole created by the rocket’s secondary booster when it falls back to Earth after being released from the rocket.
“Astronomers saw SpaceX’s first aurora above the observatory in February, and now they see 2 to 5 auroras every month,” said Stephen Hummel, astronomer and outreach program coordinator at McDonald Observatory, to Spaceweather.com, Wednesday (29/11/ 2023).
These lights are smaller and more spherical than the long streaks produced by rocket launches. “The red ball is very bright and easily visible to the naked eye,” added Hummel.
Rising rockets and non-orbiting boosters trigger ionospheric holes by releasing fuel. This condition causes the ionized oxygen atoms to recombine, or change back into ordinary gas molecules.