SpaceX rockets exiting orbit punch temporary holes in the upper atmosphere, creating bright patches of light in the sky. Now scientists have warned that these “SpaceX auroras,” which look like bright red balls of light, could cause undetected problems – even though they pose no threat to the environment or life on Earth.

researchers have known for decades that launching rockets into space can drill holes in the upper ionosphere – the part of the atmosphere between 50 and 400 miles (80 and 644 kilometers) above Earth’s surface where gas is ionized or stripped of electrons. These “ionospheric holes” can excite gas molecules in this part of the atmosphere, triggering glowing streaks of red, aurora-like light.

For example, in July, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying Starlink satellites into orbit was ripped a hole across Arizona that made the sky bleed. And in September, a US Space Force rocket accidentally struck an ionospheric hole over Californiawhich produced a faint red glow.

Well, astronomers on McDonald Observatory Similar but unique red lights have been spotted in Texas appearing long after SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets have left Earth’s atmosphere. These lights that are smaller and more spherical than the long streaks created when rockets are launched are the result of holes in the ionosphere created by the rockets’ secondary boosters as they fall back to Earth after separation from the rockets. reported.

Astronomers spotted the first of these SpaceX auroras above the observatory in February, and now they’re seeing “two to five of them every month.” Stephan Hummel, an astronomer and outreach program coordinator at McDonald Observatory, told The red balls were “very bright” and “easily visible to the naked eye,” he added.

Related: SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellites are “leaking” so much radiation that it is harming radio astronomy, scientists say

Ascending rockets and deorbiting boosters both trigger holes in the ionosphere by releasing fuel into the ionosphere, causing ionized oxygen atoms to recombine or turn back into normal gas molecules.

This conversion excites the molecules and causes them to release red light, similar to the way the gas is excited by solar radiation in traditional methods Northern lights. This essentially creates a hole in the area plasmaor ionized gas. However, the recombined molecules are re-ionized, causing the holes to close within 10 to 20 minutes.

SpaceX’s deorbiting boosters release fuel during brief burns to maneuver the falling debris to touch down in the southern Atlantic Crash onto land. According to, the resulting holes typically form about 90 minutes after launch over the southern United States at an altitude of about 185 miles (300 km). These holes are smaller and more circular than the holes created by rocket launches, so the resulting lights are more spherical and don’t last as long. But they occur more frequently.

Like the larger light shows, the holes in the ionosphere pose no threat to life on Earth’s surface. However, “their impact on astronomical science is still being evaluated,” Hummel said. Therefore, it is “a growing area of ​​attention” among researchers, he added.

SpaceX launches are becoming more frequent, increasing the likelihood of SpaceX Auroras appearing. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Changes in the ionosphere can also disrupt shortwave radio communications and interfere with GPS signals, according to

Studying these holes could also help scientists learn more about the ionosphere.

“The ionospheric density varies from night to night, so we can learn about the efficiency of the ionosphere [ionosphere’s] chemistry through the observation of many events,” Jeffrey Baumgardnera physicist at Boston University told

The red blobs aren’t the only light shows created by SpaceX rockets. The company’s rocket engines spin and throw their remaining fuel into space before leaving orbit, creating a cloud of tiny ice crystals. These crystals can occasionally reflect sunlight back to Earth, and the illuminated fuel creates bright spirals in the night sky known as “SpaceX spirals.”

There have already been two major SpaceX spirals this year: the first took place in January Spotted formation over Mauna Kea in Hawaiiand the second occurred in April, that glowed during a traditional Northern Lights display in Alaska.

The The number of SpaceX launches is increasing rapidly Therefore, both auroras and spirals are likely to become more common in the future.

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