A geomagnetic storm may have effectively destroyed 40 SpaceX Starlink satellites

Elon Musk’s satellite internet service Starlink just took a costly blow – the company currently estimates that 40 of the 49 Starlink satellites it launched on Feb. 3 will be destroyed due to a geomagnetic storm.

The storm caused “up to 50 percent more resistance than during previous launches,” preventing the deployed satellites from achieving their proper orbit around Earth. And while Starlink tried to fly them “edge-on (like a sheet of paper)” to reduce that drag, it now looks like as many as 40 of them will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere instead of reaching their destination. .

SpaceX recently passed the 2000 satellite launch milestone, and has plans to launch 12,000, if not a whole lot more — so losing 40 of them might not be such a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Still, that’s the vast majority of the Starlink launch capability of an entire Falcon 9 rocket burning up in the atmosphere.

Here’s the full SpaceX blog post for posterity:

On Thursday, Feb. 3 at 1:13 p.m. EST, Falcon 9 launched 49 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Falcon 9’s second stage put the satellites in their intended orbit, at a perigee about 210 kilometers above Earth, and each satellite achieved controlled flight.

SpaceX puts its satellites in these lower obits so that in the very rare event that a satellite does not pass the first system checks, it will be quickly taken out of orbit by atmospheric drag. While the low deployment height requires more capable satellites at a significant cost to us, it is the right choice to maintain a sustainable space environment.

Unfortunately, the satellites deployed on Thursday were significantly impacted by a geomagnetic storm on Friday. These storms cause the atmosphere to warm and increase atmospheric density at our low deployment altitudes. In fact, onboard GPS suggests that the escalation rate and severity of the storm caused drag to be up to 50 percent higher than during previous launches. The Starlink team ordered the satellites into a safe mode in which they would fly upside down (like a sheet of paper) to minimize drag – to effectively “take cover from the storm” – and continued to work closely with the 18th. space of the Space Force. Control Squadron and LeoLabs to provide updates on the satellites based on ground radars.

Preliminary analysis shows that the increased drag at the low altitudes prevented the satellites from exiting safe mode to begin orbiting orbiting, and up to 40 of the satellites will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere or have already re-entered it. The orbiting satellites pose no risk of collision with other satellites, and by design they disappear on reentry — meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite components hit the ground. This unique situation demonstrates the great efforts the Starlink team has made to ensure that the system is at the forefront of space debris reduction.

As you can see, SpaceX is taking this opportunity to show how little its satellites affect the sky — something that has been up for debate for the past month, such as a new study raises concerns that Starlink satellites leave streaks on astronomers’ images as they orbit, and may prevent us from identifying dangerous asteroids. Astronomers are forming a “center for the protection of the dark and still sky from interference from satellite constellations” to combat the issue.

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