Oops! US Space Force may have accidentally punched a hole in the upper atmosphere

The separation of the first and second stages of the Firefly Aerospace Alpha rocket after launching on Sept. 14. Fuel burned during this part of the rocket's flight may have created a hole in the ionosphere. (Image credit: Carol Cohn)

A rocket carrying a U.S. Space Force satellite into orbit may have punched a hole in Earth's upper atmosphere, after lifting off with just 27 hours' notice — a new record for the shortest amount of time from getting the go-ahead to actually launching. 

Firefly Aerospace, a company contracted by Space Force, launched one of its Alpha rockets from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Sept. 14 at 10:28 p.m. local time, Live Science's sister site Space.com reported. The launch was not publicized or live-streamed, making it a complete surprise to the space exploration community.   

The rocket was carrying Space Force's Victus Nox satellite (Latin for "conquer the night"), which will run a "space domain awareness" mission to help Space Force keep tabs on what is happening in the orbital environment. 

The surprise rocket initially caught people's eye after creating an enormous exhaust plume that could be seen from more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) away. But after the plume dissipated, a faint red glow remained in the sky, which is a telltale sign that the rocket created a hole in the ionosphere — the part of Earth's atmosphere where gases are ionized, which stretches between 50 and 400 miles (80 and 645 km) above Earth's surface — Spaceweather.com reported.

Related: Environmental groups sue US government over explosive SpaceX rocket launch

The Alpha rocket lifts off from Vandenberg Space Force Base on Sept. 14. (Image credit: Firefly Aeropspace)

This is not the first "ionospheric hole" observed this year. In July, the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket created an enormous blood-red patch above Arizona that could be seen for hundreds of miles.

Rockets create ionospheric holes when fuel from their second stages burns in the middle part of the ionosphere, between 125 and 185 miles (200 and 300 km) above Earth's surface, Live Science previously reported. At this height, the carbon dioxide and water vapor from the rocket's exhaust cause ionized oxygen atoms to recombine, or form back into normal oxygen molecules. This process excites the molecules and leads them to emit energy in the form of light. This is similar to how auroras form, except the dancing lights are caused by solar radiation heating up gases rather than their recombination. 

The holes pose no threat to people on Earth's surface and naturally close up within a few hours as the recombined gases get re-ionized.

The upper stage of the Alpha rocket releases the Victus Nox satellite into orbit around Earth. (Image credit: Firefly Aeropspace)

Firefly Aerospace was awarded the Victus Nox contract in October 2022 but was told that it would have to launch the satellite at an unknown point in the future with less than 24 hours' warning. To accomplish this, the launch team had to update the rocket's trajectory software, encapsulate the satellite, get the satellite to the launch pad, place it in the rocket and go through the final checks within that time, according to a company statement. Even then, bad weather meant they had to launch later than planned.

The aim of the mission was to "demonstrate the United States' ability to rapidly place an asset in orbit when and where we need it, ensuring we can augment our space capabilities with very little notice," Lt. Col. MacKenzie Birchenough, an officer with Space Force's Space Systems Command, said last year when the mission was first announced.

Harry Baker
Staff Writer

Harry is a U.K.-based staff writer at Live Science. He studied Marine Biology at the University of Exeter (Penryn campus) and after graduating started his own blog site "Marine Madness," which he continues to run with other ocean enthusiasts. He is also interested in evolution, climate change, robots, space exploration, environmental conservation and anything that's been fossilized. When not at work he can be found watching sci-fi films, playing old Pokemon games or running (probably slower than he'd like). 

  • AnnBenjamin1
    Not sure if it was the same one, but I live in Tioga County, NY and I recorded a rocket Thursday night going over us. My whole family witnessed it and I zoomed in, took a couple pictures and recorded it with my phone. This was 9/21/23 about 7pm.
  • Bruzote
    The amount of rocket exhaust being dumped into this unbelievably thin part of the atmosphere is not being addressed. The upper atmosphere is nearly a vacuum. Blasting multiple launches through this layer *many* times per month will have long-term affects.
  • Hartmann352
    Detailed examination of the impact of modern space launches on the Earth's atmosphere is crucial, given booming investment in the space industry and an anticipated space tourism era. We develop air pollutant emissions inventories for rocket launches and re-entry of reusable components and debris in 2019 and for a speculative space tourism scenario based on the recent billionaire space race. This we include in the global GEOS-Chem model coupled to a radiative transfer model to determine the influence on stratospheric ozone (O3) and climate.

    Due to recent surge in re-entering debris and reusable components, nitrogen oxides from re-entry heating and chlorine from solid fuels contribute equally to all stratospheric O3 depletion by contemporary rockets. Decline in global stratospheric O3 is small (0.01%), but reaches 0.15% in the upper stratosphere (∼5 hPa, 40 km) in spring at 60–90°N after a decade of sustained 5.6% a−1growth in 2019 launches and re-entries. This increases to 0.24% with a decade of emissions from space tourism rockets, undermining O3 recovery achieved with the Montreal Protocol. Rocket emissions of black carbon (BC) produce substantial global mean radiative forcing of 8 mW m−2 after just 3 years of routine space tourism launches. This is a much greater contribution to global radiative forcing (6%) than emissions (0.02%) of all other BC sources, as radiative forcing per unit mass emitted is ∼500 times more than surface and aviation sources. The O3 damage and climate effect we estimate should motivate regulation of an industry poised for rapid growth.

    See: https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2021EF002612
    The space sector is on the rise, with companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic making large investments in commercial spaceflights, and organisations like NASA continuing to power missions to space. However, the impact of such launches on the Earth’s atmosphere is still poorly understood.

    A team of researchers from the University of Nicosia in Cyprus set out to study the extent to which rockets’ propulsion emissions can create significant heating and compositional changes in the atmosphere. To do so, the scientists investigated the heat and mass transfer and rapid mixing of the combustion byproducts for altitudes up to 67km into the atmosphere.

    The findings of the study, published in Physics of Fluids, showed that rockets can have a significant impact on the Earth’s atmosphere.

    “We show that pollution from rockets should not be underestimated, as frequent future rocket launches could have a significant cumulative effect on the Earth’s climate,” said co-author Ioannis Kokkinakis.

    To come to this conclusion, the team modelled the exhaust gases and developed plume at several altitudes following a typical trajectory of a standard present-day rocket. They model the experiment as a prototypical example of a two-stage rocket to transport people and payloads into Earth’s orbit and beyond.

    See: https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2022/05/rocket-emissions-can-change-the-atmosphere-s-composition-research-finds/
    A space physicist has said it's "quite possible" that a SpaceX rocket launched earlier this month made a hole in the Earth's ionosphere where the Earth's atmosphere stretches roughly 50 to 400 miles above Earth's surface, NASA said.

    Jeff Baumgardner, a senior research scientist from Boston University, made the comments to Spaceweather. Transitory ionospheric holes have become more common as increasing numbers of rockets are launched,.

    These holes are a decidedly temporary phenomenon as reionization occurs as soon as the sun rises reducing any effects felt on the surface.

  • Hartmann352
    A space physicist has said it's "quite possible" that a SpaceX rocketlaunched earlier this month made a hole in the Earth's ionosphere.

    The ionosphere is where Earth's atmosphere meets space and stretches roughly 50 to 400 miles above Earth's surface, NASA says.

    Jeff Baumgardner, a senior research scientist from Boston University, made the comments to Spaceweather. Ionospheric holes have become more common as record numbers of rockets are launched, the report said.

    However, the atmospheric holes are transitory in nature because reionization occurs as the sun rises and this process eliminates any deleterious effects on the Earth's surface.