SpaceX rockets are burning bright red holes in Earth's atmosphere and they're becoming too common for astronomers' comfort

A photo of the ionospheric hole left behind after a July SpaceX rocket launch.
These ionospheric holes are becoming more and more common.Marybeth Kiczenski
  • SpaceX rockets are ripping brightly colored holes in the Earth's ionosphere.

  • These phenomena have been studied for over 40 years.

  • These are harmless, but may interrupt scientists trying to view the night sky.

SpaceX rocket launches are punching holes in part of Earth's atmosphere, called the ionosphere, and it's a beautiful sight to behold.

The holes appear as bright red blobs in the sky. Some are spherical while others appear like a bright smudge across the sky.

Recently, these spherical red blobs have been popping up over MacDonald Observatory in Texas, which has astronomers slightly worried for the future.

The first blob over the observatory was detected in February, but in the following months, sightings have grown, Stephen Hummel, an astronomer at McDonald Observatory, told

"We are seeing 2 to 5 of them each month," Hummel told

One such case of these atmospheric phenomena was observed in July after SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket from a base in California. Previous instances have been recorded in 2017 and 2018.

SpaceX isn't the first to punch a harmless hole in the atmosphere

While a hole in the atmosphere sounds dramatic, this phenomenon is temporary and harmless to life on Earth, Jeffrey Baumgardner, a senior research scientist at the Center for Space Physics at Boston University, told Business Insider.

He explained that scientists have been studying ionospheric holes for decades.

"During the beginning of the space age when they started launching rockets, through the Earth's atmosphere into space, it was observed that they made a disturbance in the atmosphere," Baumgardner said.

In fact, the holes a rocket burns into the ionosphere are basically just a concentrated version of what naturally happens across the entire globe, every night, Baumgardner explained.

In May 1973, researchers recorded a "large-scale hole" in the ionosphere caused by NASA's launch of the Saturn V Rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, according to a study published in Science Magazine. The impacts were seen 1,000 km or about 620 miles from the "burning engines" of the rocket.

The ionosphere is constantly in flux

Each day, the ionosphere is created when the sun's rays hit a part of our atmosphere about 185 miles above Earth, exciting mostly oxygen and nitrogen atoms, Baumgardner said.

Then, each night, when the sun's rays are absent, those excited atoms recombine with molecules in the ionosphere. As a result, the ionosphere naturally decays away. This recombination creates a faint emission of light — an effect called airglow — Baumgardner said.

Similarly, when a rocket enters the ionosphere, the chemicals in its exhaust, like carbon dioxide and water vapor, recombine with those excited oxygen and nitrogen atoms more rapidly, and that recombination can show up as red blobs in the sky, Baumgardner said.

While just about any rocket may have this effect on the ionosphere, SpaceX rockets' impact is two-fold: First, when the rocket flies to space and then, again, when the rocket descends toward Earth.

For example, the bright spherical balls that astronomers at McDonald Observatory are witnessing are from Falcon 9 boosters firing their engines to return to Earth, per

How ionospheric holes could disrupt astronomical observations

These bright red blobs don't last long. Some of the recent ones that have appeared over Texas last for one to two minutes, Baumgardner said.

However, if an astronomer just so happens to aim a telescope at the same part of the sky where one of these blobs appears, it could mean a very bad day for an astronomer.

"It could ruin somebody's time on a telescope," Baumgardner said. "They sometimes wait a year to get two or three nights on telescopes. So that would be a bad outcome for them if that actually happened."

SpaceX announced earlier this year that the company plans to launch a record 144 rockets to ramp up its Starlink satellite internet service. This may cause an issue for ground-based astronomers if SpaceX utilizes its reusable Falcon 9 rocket, which could tear holes in the atmosphere not only on the way to space but when it returns to Earth.

SpaceX did not respond to Business Insider's request for comment.

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