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Massive Shock Waves of Space Launches : Big Threat to Atmosphere

Authors:
  • Retired Life-Support Scientist and Physician

Abstract

Traditionally the rockets for space launching have accelerations and speed profiles that create massive shock waves and eddies while exiting the atmosphere. Shock waves as wide as 4 times of California have been measured. It is believed that these shock waves also create pressure waves with actual compression of air molecules in the atmosphere the propagation of which could be easier into rarified upper layers. These waves must be ablating our atmosphere in to the vacuum of space. Similarly, atmospheric re-entry of larger space junks (like de-orbiting space stations, larger satellites etc) must also be creating massive splash effects at 15-30 Mach speeds, thus ablating more atmosphere. Of late, huge launchers of SpaceX and China pose clear threats. While the climate activists are making enough noise on issues related to them, there is none voicing concerns about the atmospheric losses. This article brings out some such issues to the fore that all agencies concerned with preservation of Atmospheric blanket of Earth, should take note of. There are also suggestions to minimize the shock waves.
Massive Shock Waves of Space Launches : Big Threat to Atmosphere
Dr V N Jha, MD+
Summary
Traditionally the rockets for space launching have accelerations and speed profiles that create massive
shock waves and eddies while exiting the atmosphere. Shock waves as wide as 4 times of California have
been measured. It is believed that these shock waves also create pressure waves with actual compression of
air molecules in the atmosphere the propagation of which could be easier into rarified upper layers. These
waves must be ablating our atmosphere in to the vacuum of space. Similarly, atmospheric re-entry of larger
space junks (like de-orbiting space stations, larger satellites etc) must also be creating massive splash effects
at 15-30 Mach speeds, thus ablating more atmosphere. Of late, huge launchers of SpaceX and China pose
clear threats. While the climate activists are making enough noise on issues related to them, there is none
voicing concerns about the atmospheric losses. This article brings out some such issues to the fore that all
agencies concerned with preservation of Atmospheric blanket of Earth should take note of. There are also
suggestions to minimize the shock waves.
Introduction
To the best of our knowledge, the Earth is the only planet in our Solar System that supports Human Life.
Actually, it is not the human alone, but it supports all forms of life and Life Building Blocks, the live cells
of plants and animal origins. Mythological vernaculars in our olden books mention that the numerous forms
of living beings are made up of just five basic elements…Earthen soil, water, fire, air and the cosmos. The
five elements in optimum proportions that may be conducive for life, exist only on our planet Earth. With
optimum proportions, we understand that our soil has all those elements and compounds essential for
forming and sustaining a life-being. Water is an absolute necessity. Fire (or the environmental temperature)
need to be just enough that life can sustain and grow. Air is available in optimum pressure and composition
(having Oxygen) that life can sustain. Last but not the least, our body or the entire live-being on the Earth
are also having the cosmic elements…be that gravity, Sunlight, radiations and other invisible forces incl
spiritual elements, our souls.
+Dr V N Jha, MD is an Aerospace Scientist and Executive Editor of the magazine, ‘The Counterviews’
published at www.thecounterviews.com. This paper has been presented at the 3rd ICCC, Bali on 2nd Jun 22.
The Concerns
The intention of this article is not to dwell or argue over the correctness of the “Panch-Tatva (five elements)”
as the genesis of life but how to keep our environmental system
esp the atmosphere intact. Environmentalists the world over are
much concerned about the rising temperature of our planet and
rightly so. Many movements have started by the 'Climate
activist' groups. There have also been concerns of the depleting
ozone layer causing harmful radiations to penetrate to the
surface of Earth. However, we seem to be selectively
indifferent to the harm inflicted to the Earth's 'Atmospheric
Blanket' by the various rocket launched to the space, especially
the larger and wider ones. All super-powers and space agencies
involved with space explorations would like to see these issues
be swept under the carpet for as long as possible.
Scientists have started getting basic understanding of the science of our planet. Our atmospheric cover is a
fine balance among Earth’s gravity, its soil/crusts, its magnetic shield, the surface temperature, Solar energy
and the vacuum of space. The gravity that retains atmospheric blanket around, has several variables. Earths’
mass, density, diameter, gravity, rotation, magnetic field, surface temperatures…all may be relevant in the
holding of the atmospheric blanket. Farther and higher the extent of atmosphere, greater could be the losses.
Our soil must be having enormous capability to replenish the lost air in to space. Its magnetic field shields
atmosphere from the ablative solar and galactic flares as well as protects our lives from the harmful
radiations. Its temperature has potential to outward expand the atmosphere increasing its losses in to the
vacuum of space.
It is claimed and believed by many scientists that ~90 tons of atmosphere is lost to the space daily, not
proven though. These many tons of air must be replenished by earth daily otherwise, the total mass of air,
atmospheric pressure in turn, would have shrunken by now to naught over the billions of years of the
existence of earth; and atmospheric pressure would have gradually depleted. In the recent many centuries
since when scientific measurements have come in to force, no drop in pressure has been recorded. Hence,
the atmosphere lost in the vacuum of space must be continuously been regenerated by the soil/crust of the
Earth having all its components incl nitrogen, oxygen, water vapour, carbon dioxide and other trace gasses.
If that be so, it has to be at the cost of its continuously depleting mass of the crusts/soil/water. If the mass
of the Earth depletes, its gravity will also deplete. Whether that is happening, we really don’t know. We
don’t have millennia of gravity or atmospheric pressure data to compare with.
What holds Atmosphere to Earth?
What holds the atmosphere to the surface of the Earth is very difficult to
say. It could be gravity but then… near similar gravity of some other
planets have highly disproportionate atmospheric pressures. Could it be
the magnetic field of the Earth that has significant protection against
atmospheric losses? Possibly Yes but we must remember planet Venus
as exception. A strong Solar Flare could cause massive ablation of our atmosphere and Earths magnetism
for sure protects it. There are also theories that the hydroxyl bonds in air retain the atmospheric blanket.
But what about the atmospheric pressure? Is it only the function of the column of air under gravity? Could
it be the composition of gas that determines atmospheric pressure? The Earth Scientists and the Physicists
may tell us for sure. Lesser the capacity of the Earth to hold atmospheric blanket firmly (for whatever
reasons), the greater will be loss of air in to the vacuum of space. Besides, many cosmic events may also
ablate the atmospheric blanket around our planet.
Relationship among various parameters of the planets in the Solar system also seems to be very mysterious,
defying some of the known logic; or maybe we know very little to comprehend the cosmic science and
events applicable in them. The atmospheric pressure on planets do
not seem to be universally related or applicable to the parameters of
diameter, mass, density, gravity, temperature, rotation and so on as
could have been expected. Most of us tend to apply scientific logic
of gravity and to the Atmospheric pressure but as can be seen in the
table below, it is not. Otherwise Venus, Saturn and Uranus could
have had similar or comparable atmospheric pressures as that of
Earth as shown in the table below. Planetary rotations of the planets
are shown in red (below), represent counter-clock (to Earth) west-
ward rotation. There is just one correlation of planetary parameters
that is apparent, in their mass, diameter and gravity as shown in the graph opposite that follow similar trend.
Atmosphere and Atmospheric Pressure
It would have been reasonable to relate the presence and quantum of atmospheric pressure to be directly
proportional to the size, mass, gravity and the magnetic fields (Venus has no magnetic field but has 92 bar
of Atm pressure). Rotation and surface temperature of the planet too could have an impact on the
atmosphere but it is not. Greenhouse effect may have different effects… one being the expansion of the
atmosphere as per Charles law from where gaseous losses in to the space could become easier.
It must be remembered that there is a very fine balance between our atmospheric pressure and the vacuum
of space. One bar of atmospheric pressure at the surface of the Earth keeps gradually decreasing with
altitude and the pressure drops to near zero at the imaginary Karman's line, the boundary of the Space. At
those altitudes there are no pressure gradient between the extremely thin atmosphere and Space that could
push out the precious air which is in molecular forms, in random motions. Fewer molecules gaining kinetic
motions for various reasons do escape. Some literatures mention ionic forms of some elements acquiring
extremely high velocities which if oriented away from Earth, may escape in to Space. However, for some
reason, if a transient pressure is created at those altitudes, it could ablate a significant of atmospheric air in
to the vacuum of space. These transient pressure could be created by the 'Shock Waves' of the rocket
launches beyond transonic speeds and increasing thereafter, that this article intends to highlight.
Atmospheric ablation of Shock Waves & Splash effects
Creation of shock waves and its accentuation at higher Mach numbers may have a direct impact on partial
ablation of the atmosphere through creation of Pressure waves. In this regard, most if not all rockets
propelling towards space, have enormous shock & Pressure waves and the Eddies that sets atmospheric
molecules in motion in the direction of the rockets. The resultant Kinetic motion of the atmospheric
molecules could be proportionately substantial, that could push out varying quantities of the atmospheric
gases out in to the vacuum of space. Among the gases lost, damage to the ozone layer is the worst. The
extent of the shock-waves and the eddies are directly proportional to the maximum cross-section area of
the rocket-payload combination, Speed of the rocket at Karman’s line, ascent angle of the rockets. Besides,
there are many other considerations too that include the Hypersonic gas dynamics, the Knudsen number
(Kn) relevant to the gas flow; hydrodynamic shielding at the tip of payload; and the ratio of pressures behind
the shock wave esp in the atmospheric downstream. All these additionally create atmospheric molecular
displacement.
Further, the Eddie-current formed behind the rockets are equally strong though largely depends upon the
linearity of the laminar flow.
Extent of the Eddies following the
craft could be substantial as seen
in the picture (opposite), of an
aircraft landing at a high altitude
kuchcha airport or the Eddies
formed behind a speeding motor
car and moving behind it in the
Every time a rocket shoots out of the Earths Atmosphere to space, large
amount of air is pushed out into the vacuum of space and lost for ever.
The loss is α cross-section area of the rocket/payload
α Eddie current behind the rocket
α Speed of the launch vehicle at Karmans line
α angle of the rocket from the horizon (max 90)
It also depends upon the followings:-
(a) Hypersonic gas dynamics, the Knudsen number (Kn) relevant to gas flow;
(b) Hydrodynamic shielding at the tip of payload; and
(c) Ratio of pressures behind shock wave esp the atmospheric downstream.
desert race (with some dust also raised by kicking of the vehicle tyres). The Eddie current movement will
be much more pronounced while travelling from denser to rarefied strata of the atmosphere.
Similarly, heavy / super-heavy rockets would surely form greater Shock/Pressure waves in the front and
the Eddies following behind and thus pose a much greater threat to our atmospheric cover. Besides, the
heavy rockets also pollute the environment a lot with highly toxic exhaust gases.
There are some agencies that occasionally study the impacts of Space rocket launches, to the atmosphere.
In one such study, a Falcon 9 rocket of SpaceX
was detected to have created a Shock wave of
the size of 4 times of the State of California in
the upper atmosphere and that is huge. Shock
waves or Shock Accoustic Waves (SAWs) as
scientists call it, could be V-shaped or circular,
depending on the trajectory of the rockets but
together with rocket exhaust, they do drill holes
in the ionosphere as measures through Total
Electron Content (TEC) studies that filled-up
after several minutes (https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2017sw001738 and .
Although only a part of these Shock wave may be transform into the Pressure wave causing kinetic
movement of the air mass in the multi-layered cones, with or without
temperature of compression (which may not be pronounced at those
altitudes). Yet, the translocation/kineticism of the air molecules will be
substantial esp on the inner pressure zones (A>B>C) as shown; further
facilitated by the pressure gradient from denser to the rarified
atmosphere although partially limited to lesser extent by Earth’s gravity.
The atmospheric losses due to such repetitive rocket launches in to the
vacuum of space must be huge. The environmentalists, Earth-Scientists
and activists the world over should get alarmed with such impacts of
Space launches. One could only guess the impacts of much wider rockets (like the Chinese Long March
and SpaceX Starlink). Wider shock/pressure-waves created below the Karman's line will be more dangerous
to the atmosphere as that will push out (ablate) larger air mass. These air mass moving up in the vacuum of
space is also likely to create greater Orbital Decays of the spacecraft in the lower part of the LEO, extending
gradually upwards. It could shorten the satellite life.
Similarly, any significant mass of cosmic or man-
made objects hitting the upper atmosphere at very
high speeds could have Splash effect on the
atmospheric fluid. Cosmic objects like comet or
meteor hitting the upper atmosphere or even
rockets, missiles and spacecraft making the
atmospheric re-entry at phenomenal speeds of 15-
30 Mach, are capable of splashing out significant
amount of atmosphere lost for ever in to the vacuum
of space.
Atmospheric losses due to Shock/pressure wave and Splash Effects are something that take place due to
every rocket, spacecraft and ballistic missiles launches during its ascent or atmospheric re-entry. It must be
making dent and holes in our protective atmosphere that not many people or agencies are talking about.
The author of this article is certainly naïve in the complex subject of Earth-Science but the questions raised
are genuine that every terrestrial inhabitant will be concerned about. Since there is no penalty clause on the
environmentally damaging space launches, the offenders are going scout-free.
Remedies
While Space Exploration is essential for the betterment of life and overall growth of science, it must have
some checks and balances too, to prevent damages to our precious atmosphere. The example of such effort
could be those of Climatic changes and world effort in preventing it. The speeds of the rockets below
Karman’s line are surely in the hands of the designers/scientists. If this speed is reduced to sub-sonic levels,
the Sock/pressure wave will not be formed and hence, atmosphere losses could be prevented. This surely
will put additional burden on the rockets to accelerate to orbital velocities after exiting atmosphere. This
will be a smaller price to pay to preserve our precious atmosphere. The second/third stage burns will have
to be longer to achieve either orbital or escape velocities as the case may be. All Space agencies, their
regulators or even UN regulators may like to lay down a stricter norm in this regard.
Earth Scientists may also work towards strengthening the other factors like artificial enhancements of the
Earths Magnetism through channeling of the massive flow of Electrons (Earthing) taking place every
moment through our soil. Similarly, if Hydroxyl bonds in air enhance atmospheric retention, there could be
scope for our scientific know-how to work. Like for the many UN bodies on Climate Changes, there could
also be a committee on Atmospheric Studies whether under UNEP, UNFCC or some other groups.
Conclusion
While environmentalists the world over are rightly concerned about the climate changes, very few are aware
of the multiple holes in our atmosphere that the wider and mightier rockets and missiles are drilling. Every
rocket heading to space is pushing out large mass of air due to Shock/pressure waves. Similarly, Splash
effects also cause the atmospheric losses. These air moving in to the vacuum of space is also likely to
accentuate orbital decays of the satellites in the LEO, reducing their lives.
There are ways and means to prevent the formation of shock/pressure waves and minimize atmospheric
losses by modifying the acceleration and velocity profiles of the rockets. Time has come when all activists
of environment must come together and take effective steps unitedly so as to make our Earth, the only
inhabitable planet in the cosmos, a safer place to live. None should be allowed to damage the atmospheric
cover of the Earth. The world bodies must come forward to regulate it.
Full-text available
Book
Designing the Spacecraft Crew Modules for Human Missions is a tough ask. Each Human Mission may have its own specific requirements to the human interface, living, carrying out the mission task and also be able to return back to the Earth safely. This book elaborates the problem statements relevant to 'Human parameters' in Human Space Missions and its solutions. Design concepts elaborate upon the crew module living space &volume, its structural strength, capacity to withstand design acceleration & deceleration, the re-entry temperature and all related issues. Considerations of Environmental control elaborate on the micro-environmental pressure, breathing oxygen and control of the contaminants in the EC&LSS. There is a separate chapter on the personal protective systems, the Space Suit and also an EVA Suit. The rationale for a common spacesuit has been elaborated. Human-specific consumables and its reprocessing find special mention along with Crew Health monitoring, Human rating issues of the launcher and the problems of aborting the missions during different phases of the mission. This Second Edition has also dwelt upon the mission duration related crew size and added two chapters, one on the Space Tourism-related issues and Environmental attributes of the Space vehicle launches. It is worth mentioning that each heavy rocket launch throws out a large mass of our precious atmosphere in the vacuum of Space.
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