SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Launches Can Cause an Aurora-Like Glow in the Sky

Auroras are often spectacular displays at the edge of the atmosphere caused by space weather, usually in the form of highly charged particles from the sun slamming into Earth’s magnetosphere, but a similar-looking phenomenon has been observed recently at unusually low latitudes.

Photographer Christopher Hoffman picked it up while he was taking long exposure shots of the night sky with his camera just after midnight Sunday from a location in Maryland.

“When the exposure was done I was seeing this red glowing huge area covering the Milky Way,” Hoffman wrote of the above photo shared to SpaceWeatherGallery.com that shows a reddish glow not unlike that of an aurora borealis.

The thing is, Hoffman took the photo from a location too far south to see auroras caused by all but the strongest of geomagnetic storms. And at the moment it was taken, there was no such storm in progress. But there was another event that had just taken place.

“My first thought was a SpaceX launch,” he recalled. “Crazy thing was it was only visible in the images and not with the naked eye.”

His guess turned out to be correct, as a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a communications satellite had launched from Florida just a few minutes earlier.

Other photographers reported similar experiences.

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This reddish glow was spotted over Tennessee following a Falcon 9 launch from Florida.

SpaceWeatherGallery.com/Josh Thum
“This glow is probably the exhaust gasses from the rocket’s second stage, causing the ionosphere to recombine quickly,” Boston University physicist Jeff Baumgardner told Spaceweather.com. “This is a well-studied phenomenon when rocket engines are firing in the altitude (around) 200-250 km (124 – 155 miles).”

What’s happening is that charged oxygen molecules in the upper atmosphere are reacting with water and carbon dioxide from the rocket exhaust and emitting photons at the same wavelength as red auroras as a result.

This isn’t a phenomenon that’s unique to SpaceX rockets. As Baumgardner noted, it was also documented following a Titan IV launch back in 2005 when Elon Musk’s company was barely getting started.

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Watch SpaceX Launch Three Falcon 9 Rockets in a 36-Hour Span This Weekend
The company is on pace to launch nearly twice as many rockets as it did in 2021.

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Eric Mack
June 17, 2022 1:28 p.m. PT
2 min read
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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 lifts off Friday from Florida with a cargo of Starlink satellites.
SpaceX
Elon Musk’s space company has back-to-back-to-back orbital missions lined up on Friday and Sunday.

The launch-a-palooza began at 9:09 a.m. PT (12:09 p.m. ET) Friday with a Falcon 9 rocket blasting off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center carrying yet another batch of 53 SpaceX Starlink broadband satellites to low-Earth orbit.

Less than 24 hours later another Falcon 9 is set to liftoff at 7:19 a.m. PT from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. This mission will deliver the SARah-1 reconnaissance satellite to orbit for the German military.

And then about 14 hours later, a third Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch a commercial telecommunications satellite for Globalstar from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. That mission is set to blast off at 9:27 p.m. PT Saturday (12:27 a.m. ET Sunday), just a little over 36 hours after the Friday launch from just a few miles away.

This marks the shortest timeframe for three SpaceX launches so far in the company’s history.

You can rewatch the Starlink mission below. Check in with CNET Highlights on YouTube or the SpaceX website for feeds to watch this weekend’s other missions.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has long said that he envisioned being able to turn around a Falcon 9 and relaunch it within hours of landing. That’s not exactly what’s happening this weekend, as the company is conducting three separate missions with three different rockets and launch pads.

While it’s not the same as flying the same rocket twice in a single day, the company’s busy schedule is evidence of a big increase in launch cadence in 2022. If all three missions leave the planet this weekend, it will mark 26 Falcon 9 launches so far this year. The company record for most launches in a calendar year was set in 2021 with 31 flights. SpaceX could be on pace to nearly double that mark in 2022.

The company has also set a new record already this weekend. The booster that launched Friday’s Starlink mission flew for the 13th time, a new mark for reusability for a Falcon 9.

While Falcon 9 use has ramped up, Musk has said he ultimately hopes to migrate Starlink missions and others onto the next-generation Starship vehicle. Starship recently passed a key environmental review for its first orbital test flight, although with dozens of required mitigations.

It’s now feasible Starship could launch in the coming weeks, but the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to issue an official launch license for the flight.

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NASA Attempt to Boost Space Station Cuts Off Unexpectedly
A five-minute test only lasted for five seconds.

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Amanda Kooser
June 21, 2022 10:07 a.m. PT
2 min read
Diagram of the ISS showing where spacecraft, including the Cygnus-17 cargo craft, are docked.
A diagram of the ISS shows where all the current spacecraft are docked. The Cygnus-17 cargo craft attempted to reboost the station, but the test cut off extremely early.
NASA
The International Space Station sometimes has to shift its path to stay in the right orbit or to avoid debris (like it did last week). Usually, the ISS crew calls on Russian equipment to provide the thrust for the adjustments, but NASA tried to use a Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo craft in a “reboost” test on Monday. It didn’t go as planned.

Cygnus-17 was supposed to fire its engine for a little over 5 minutes, but the firing aborted after just 5 seconds. In a statement on Monday, NASA said the “the cause for the abort is understood and under review,” but didn’t elaborate on what happened.

The ISS flies in a low Earth orbit, and the planet’s atmosphere is constantly dragging on it. Regular reboosts help the station stay in orbit. “The reboost is designed to provide Cygnus with an enhanced capability for station operations as a standard service for NASA,” the space agency said.

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Back in 2018, NASA performed a short test of an ISS reboost maneuver with a different Cygnus spacecraft, but there’s a little more importance to the operation this time around. Russian cosmonauts and American and European astronauts are getting along just fine on the ISS, but there are tensions on the ground due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It makes sense for NASA to have a way to adjust the station’s orbit that doesn’t rely on Russian gear.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk suggested in February that SpaceX’s Dragon capsules could also handle reboost duties if needed.

The Cygnus-17 spacecraft was used to transport cargo to the ISS. The crew emptied it and then repacked it with trash and discarded gear. It will soon depart from the ISS and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, like a space garbage disposal. But first, NASA is hoping to pull off a successful reboost. The do-over could happen as soon as Saturday.

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NASA Shares Ideas for Humans Landing on Mars, Asks for Input
NASA is seeking comments from industry, academia and the public on its concept for getting humans to Mars.

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Amanda Kooser
May 27, 2022 8:44 a.m. PT
2 min read
An imagined Mars lander and rover, with astronaut, on the surface of Mars
Future NASA Mars astronauts might live in a pressurized rover.
NASA
Here’s an idea. Someday in the future, NASA sends four people on a mission to Mars. Two of them land on the surface and live in a pressurized rover while conducting science operations for 30 days. The other two astronauts remain in orbit. They all come home safely. It’s just a broad concept as this point, but NASA is looking for feedback on its plans for getting humans to the red planet.

Earlier this month, NASA called for input on its moon to Mars objectives, which consist of a list of 50 points connected to transportation, habitation, infrastructure, operations and science. The high-level objectives address a wide range of ideas, from developing power systems for use on the Martian surface to better understanding space weather and its impact on deep space exploration. The public has until June 3 to offer input via a NASA form.

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NASA will use the feedback to help shape its plans over the next couple of decades. “These objectives will move us toward our first analog Mars mission with crew in space and prepare us for the first human mission to the surface of the Red Planet,” said NASA’s Jim Free in a statement. “After reviewing feedback on the objectives, we will work with our partners to discuss input and finalize our framework this fall.”

In a video accompanying the input request, Free — associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate — shared a look at what a future crewed Mars mission might look like. The concept covers a 30-day surface mission that would involve sending a cargo lander and ascent vehicle (for getting the crew back off the planet) ahead of the astronauts’ arrival.

NASA graphic showing concepts for astronauts and equipment on Mars
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This graphic shows a NASA concept for a crewed Mars mission with a 30-day surface exploration component.

NASA
All eyes are on Mars as the next great frontier in human exploration of the solar system. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has hopes of getting humans to the red planet this decade, which is radically ambitious. Expect NASA’s vision to take much longer to play out. The space agency is focused on building a human presence at the moon through the Artemis program first.

It’s fun to think ahead to boots on Mars, but, as NASA knows, it will take a lot of work to figure out how to pull it off. If you have thoughts on that, NASA would like to hear about it.

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Hubble Spots Glittering ‘Sea of Sequins’ Crammed With Stars
Stare into the heart of a stunning globular cluster.

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Amanda Kooser
June 22, 2022 12:43 p.m. PT
2 min read
A blanket of glittering stars against a dark backdrop of space with a brighter, denser collection of stars lighting up the middle.
Terzan 9 is a globular cluster that looks like a sea of sequins against the dark of space.
ESA/Hubble and NASA, R. Cohen
Here’s your moment of space beauty for the day. The Hubble Space Telescope stared at the constellation Sagittarius and spotted a luminous collection of stars. NASA highlighted the view of Terzan 9, a globular cluster, on Wednesday.

Hubble is a joint project from NASA and the European Space Agency. ESA said, “Terzan 9 is dotted with so many glittering stars that it resembles a sea of sequins.” The term “globular cluster” might sound a little awkward, but the views are spectacular. These clusters are formations that can contain millions of stars.

The Hubble image shows the dense heart of Terzan 9, where stars look like they’re snuggling in close with one another, creating a brighter conglomeration in the center.

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Here’s the full view. ESA released this Hubble image of the heart of the Terzan 9 globular cluster in June 2022.

ESA/Hubble and NASA, R. Cohen
The image is gorgeous, and there’s plenty of science interest here, too. Hubble is investigating globular clusters near the middle of our home Milky Way galaxy, a place that’s full of interstellar dust. As you can imagine with any dusty spot, it can be hard to see through an area like that and get an accurate idea of what’s going on.

The interstellar dust can change how the colors of stars appear to us back here near Earth. “Hubble’s sensitivity at both visible and infrared wavelengths allows astronomers to measure how star colors change due to interstellar dust,” said ESA. “Knowing a star’s true color and brightness allows astronomers to estimate its age, and thereby estimate the globular cluster’s age.”

Hubble is an old-timer after having spent more than three decades out in the wilds of space. Despite numerous technical glitches, the Hubble team has been able to keep the venerable observatory operating. NASA hopes it’ll continue to deliver data for years to come, even as the next-gen James Webb Space Telescope comes fully online.

Here’s to many more more Hubble views of space sequins.

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