Concerns have been expressed over Firefly Aerospace’s latest rocket launch and its possible effects on the Earth’s ionosphere, which could interfere with satellite navigation systems and radio communications. The Space Force Victus Nox satellite was launched into orbit on September 14 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Hundreds of miles could be seen in the rocket’s exhaust plume, but observers also noticed a faint red glow, which could be an indication of damage to the ionized portion of the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
The charged atoms, or ions, that make up the ionosphere, which is situated between 50 and 400 miles above Earth’s surface, are crucial for radio communications because they reflect and refract radio waves. On the other hand, radio blackouts can result from ionosphere disruptions, especially during solar flares.
As the rocket ascends, its exhaust, which is mostly made of carbon dioxide and water, interacts with ions in the ionosphere, momentarily changing the chemistry of the atmosphere. The ionosphere weakens and the red light appears as a result of this disruption, which facilitates ionization into neutral atoms.
Professor Christopher Scott of the University of Reading in the United Kingdom states that a rocket launch can result in an ionization reduction of up to seventy percent in the impacted area, especially in the F-layer at the top of the ionosphere. This phenomena, which can interfere with satellite navigation systems and radio communications, is caused by components of rocket exhaust interacting with ions.
Although the impact and rocket trails eventually diffuse, possibly returning the atmosphere’s chemical equilibrium in a few hours, Scott points out that if the launch takes place at night, the decreased ionization might last until daybreak.
Similar impacts on the ionosphere have been seen in a number of recent rocket flights, including SpaceX’s July and August launches, which has raised concerns about possible interruptions to numerous systems.
Notwithstanding these worries, Scott stresses that the ionosphere’s capacity to block dangerous UV and X-rays from the sun and prevent them from reaching Earth’s surface is unaffected by the holes made in the layer by rocket launches.
The rate at which rocket exhaust components are carried to the upper atmosphere and the speed at which solar radiation removes them or splits them into constituent atoms will determine the long-term effects of increasing rocket launches on the ionosphere. Even though there have been more rocket launches recently, the amount of gas released is still quite tiny when compared to the high atmosphere. However, to evaluate any cumulative effects on the stability of the ionosphere, monitoring will need to continue.