June 19, 2024

Auroras, or the northern and southern lights, have long been heralded as signs and omens. To the Greeks and some Aboriginal Australians, they are gods and goddess racing across the skies. The Cree believe them to be messages from the dearly departed. Some Chinese legends associate them with dragons. Now, they’re also a sign of the space race.

As rockets speed their way to space, they’re punching holes in the ionosphere, the uppermost layer of Earth’s atmosphere. This isn’t causing the sky to fall—but it is causing “bleeding” auroras.

At around 150 miles up, the exhaust of a rocket’s second stage (which is mostly carbon dioxide and water vapor) interacts with molecules already there. This forms the red glow of an artificial aurora and creates a temporary hole in the atmosphere. Before you start worrying—no, these effects don’t pose a risk to human health. However, they have been noticed to briefly disrupt HAM radio signals and GPS.

The most recent sighting was in November, when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch created a blood-red artificial aurora visible in Texas. This aurora formed as the Falcon 9 burned its rockets on re-entry. These descent auroras are smaller and more spherical than those made when a rocket is ascending.

Some have dubbed these new artificial auroras “SpaceX auroras.” While the company has created the largest of these auroras (and perhaps the most) it’s not the only culprit. The US Space Force’s Victus Nox created an ionospheric hole in September. (Its cousin division, the US Air Forc,e created the first known one in 2005 with its Titan rocket.)

These auroras and holes are expected to proliferate with increased rocket traffic, and astronomers have taken an interest. In addition to helping us learn about their effects, these auroras could also give hints about the nature of true auroras and the complicated dynamics of the ionosphere, which is notoriously hard to study.

“The frequency of these red clouds could increase as SpaceX targets more launches in the future,” Stephen Hummel, Dark Skies Sr. Outreach Program Coordinator at McDonald Observatory, said in a statement. “Their impact on astronomical science is still being evaluated. Starlink satellites are a known issue, but the effects of the rocket launches themselves are a growing area of attention.”



As the solar maximum—the peak of the Sun’s 11-year activity cycle—approaches, auroras (the real ones, not the rocket-made ones) are becoming more frequent. This week saw several beautiful displays, including this one in Wisconsin.

An aurora lights up a cloudy sky in shades of bright green

Photo: Ted S. Warren (AP)

📡 📡 📡


South Korea has its first spy satellite. The launch comes less than two weeks after North Korea’s own.

Sir Richard Branson is done investing in Virgin Galactic. The announcement has tanked the stock price.

Shanghai wants to become a space hub. The government is investing in its aerospace sector with hopes of building and launching rockets and satellites.

SpaceX is taking a competitor’s satellites to space. Elon Musk’s company will launch Amazon’s Project Kuiper internet satellites in 2025.

The Hubble Space Telescope broke down. NASA is working to fix one of the scope’s three gyroscopes, which has failed.

This week’s Space Business newsletter was authored by science writer and photographer Mara Johnson-Groh, and edited by Heather Landy.

Last week: Life After the ISS

This was issue 206 of our newsletter. Send aurora sightings, tips, and informed opinions to talk@qz.com.

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