How hot was the space shuttle fireball at launch?

Many on earth would jump at the chance to go to space, with well-known stars such as Oprah Winfrey saying they would love to go. For most of us though, that dream will never…

How hot was the space shuttle fireball at launch?

Many on earth would jump at the chance to go to space, with well-known stars such as Oprah Winfrey saying they would love to go. For most of us though, that dream will never come true as the Earth’s magnetosphere – the protective boundary protecting our planet from cosmic rays and other harmful space particles – is so massive that to reach it requires an incredibly expensive rocket ride or a return trip to Earth.

But how does the Earth’s atmosphere feel? A recent study from Michigan State University provides the answer. Researchers there studied the airflow patterns and pressure around the space shuttle before and after the launch. The team wanted to understand how at that fraction of a second that the space shuttle was in the so-called fireball phase, when most of the crew was sucked up into the atmosphere and when it was last seen floating in the sky towards Florida, how that affected the structure of the atmosphere below.

In total, they observed 20 thruster burns and recorded levels of what is called the Van Allen radiation belt – which is our most powerful shield against harmful cosmic rays – and the magnetic field surrounding Earth.

Ultimately, they found that the thrusters burned hotter and faster while they were in the flames, as expected, but also that this process could spread to surrounding areas in space. The thinnest part of the orbiter, where it returns to earth, was also hotter than the thickest part. These changes in the atmosphere were enough to make it warm up by up to 0.9 degrees centigrade during this brief phase.

The ground remained cold and stable, however, in both instances.

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