TEMPO.CO, Jakarta – In mid-July, viewers were hoping to catch a glimpse of the launch rocket SpaceX surprised to see it followed by a similar bright phenomenon aurora in Arizona. The rocket has formed a hole in the upper atmosphere, visible from the red light captured by photographers on the ground, as reported by Space, 29 November 2023.
The light itself is nothing new. Disturbances like this in the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere have been occurring for years. The light is often spherical and is caused by interactions between rocket exhaust and the ionosphere, an ionized region in the upper atmosphere between 43 miles and 250 miles (69 km and 402 km) above the Earth’s surface.
But now, some astronomers say these events are becoming more frequent. Stephen Hummel, an astronomer and light pollution reduction specialist at the McDonald Observatory in Texas, told Spaceweather.com that “2 to 5” skylights are visible each month. The light is visible to the naked eye and remains in the sky for only a few seconds to minutes.
When rockets are launched, they can “punch a hole” in the atmosphere, leaving behind a red glow. But the “SpaceX aurora” occurs when the second stage of the rocket burns to return to the surface. The once rare glowing phenomenon is now becoming more common as rocket launches become more frequent.
In 2017, SpaceX Falcon 9 exhaust left a hole about 560 miles (900 km) wide in the ionosphere, according to a 2018 paper in Space Weather. The hole may have caused a slight range error in the GPS system (which transmits radio waves) of up to one meter, the researchers concluded. The impact of these rays on astronomical observations is still unclear.
“The impact on astronomy is still being evaluated,” Hummel told Spaceweather.com. “Starlink satellites are a common problem, but the impact of the rocket launch itself is an increasing concern.”
Protecting Earth’s skies has become busy work in these difficult days for spaceflight. Earlier this year, a team of researchers discovered that the night sky was becoming increasingly difficult to see due to “skyglow”—human light pollution that illuminates the night sky.
In addition to the eerie red glow they emit, rockets and satellites that pass through Earth’s stratosphere leave metal behind, polluting the Earth, according to a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
SpaceX is also responsible for the Starlink satellite constellation, which is expanding internet access around the world—albeit at the expense of astronomical observations. But the next generation of Starlink satellites are ten times fainter than the original satellites. A previous Gizmodo report indicated that the company is working to reduce its harmful impact on astronomy.
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