Watch As A Rocket Punches Stunning “Ionospheric Hole” Mid-Flight

Watch As A Rocket Punches Stunning “Ionospheric Hole” Mid-Flight

Above our heads, almost at the edge of space, there is a fair bit of plasma extending way past the orbit where the International Space Station flies. This is the ionosphere. Ultraviolet light from the Sun frees electrons from the atoms and molecules in the atmosphere creating this layer. It influences radio communications and it’s the place where auroras occur. It’s also possible to punch a hole right through it, which we can see if the conditions are right – like a rocket launch.

Firefly Alpha took off on July 3 from the Vanderberg Space Force Base in California. The rocket flew with eight small satellites from both NASA centers and universities as part of the space agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative to provide a low-cost way to conduct science and technology demonstrations in space.

Atmospheric scientist David Blanchard was at the ready taking a timelapse of the sky as the rocket flew through the ionosphere. He was able to capture the beautiful spectacle unfolding in the sky before the hole disappeared just as quickly.

The rocket flew into a Sun-synchronous orbit and as it reached the ionosphere, the water vapor in the rocket exhaust punched a glowing red “hole” through it, which is a wonderfully pragmatic way to picture it. What’s happening is the oxygen atoms in the ionosphere interact with the exhaust and recombine into oxygen molecules releasing light.

While rockets can punch a hole pretty quickly, there are also natural events that do it too and they can make even larger holes. Atmospheric waves down near the ground can climb 80 kilometers (50 miles) or more to enter the ionosphere and affect the compositions there. Recently planetary scientists have witnessed multiple letter-shaped structures taking place in that high layer of the atmosphere.

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