Geomagnetic storm wipes out 40 of the 49 SpaceX Starlink satellites launched into orbit last week
Geomagnetic storm has wiped out 40 of the 49 SpaceX Starlink satellites launched from the Falcon 9 rocket into orbit last week Thursday. In an announcement today, SpaceX said 80% of the satellites it launched last week are expected to burn up instead of reaching orbit.
“Unfortunately, the satellites deployed on Thursday were significantly impacted by a geomagnetic storm on Friday,” SpaceX said in a statement. “These storms cause the atmosphere to warm and atmospheric density at our low deployment altitudes to increase.”
In an update posted yesterday, SpaceX said that on February 3, the Falcon 9’s second stage deployed 49 “satellites into their intended orbit, with a perigee of approximately 210 kilometers above Earth, and each satellite achieved controlled flight.”
According to the Space Weather Prediction Center, which is operated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, geomagnetic storms occur when intense solar wind near Earth spawns shifting currents and plasmas in Earth’s magnetosphere. The storms are the result of interactions between solar wind – a stream of charged particles from the sun – and Earth’s magnetic field.
SpaceX said it initially deployed the satellites into lower altitudes than they ultimately orbit in “so that in the very rare case any satellite does not pass initial system checkouts, it will quickly be deorbited by atmospheric drag,” the company said.
Elon Musk’s firm said it expects to lose up to 40 of the 49 Starlink satellites it launched last week. The company added that the speed and severity of the storm resulted in an “atmospheric drag” that was up to 50% higher than during previous launches, it said.
According to SpaceX, although the satellites were commanded to “take cover from the storm” by flying “edge-on (like a sheet of paper)”, they failed to carry out the maneuvers required to reach their required orbit.
SpaceX added that “up to 40 of the satellites will re-enter or already have re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and the deorbiting satellites pose zero collision risk with other satellites.” SpaceX also explains that the Starlink satellites are designed to disintegrate upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
To date, the company has already launched 2,000 Starlink satellites, with plans to launch up to 12,000 in total.
You read the full statement below.
FEBRUARY 8, 2022
GEOMAGNETIC STORM AND RECENTLY DEPLOYED STARLINK SATELLITES
On Thursday, February 3 at 1:13 p.m. EST, Falcon 9 launched 49 Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Falcon 9’s second stage deployed the satellites into their intended orbit, with a perigee of approximately 210 kilometers above Earth, and each satellite achieved controlled flight.
SpaceX deploys its satellites into these lower orbits so that in the very rare case any satellite does not pass initial system checkouts it will quickly be deorbited by atmospheric drag. While the low deployment altitude requires more capable satellites at a considerable cost to us, it’s the right thing to do 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 atmospheric density at our low deployment altitudes to increase. In fact, onboard GPS suggests the escalation speed and severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50 percent higher than during previous launches. The Starlink team commanded the satellites into a safe-mode where they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper) to minimize drag—to effectively “take cover from the storm”—and continued to work closely with the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron and LeoLabs to provide updates on the satellites based on ground radars.
Preliminary analysis show the increased drag at the low altitudes prevented the satellites from leaving safe-mode to begin orbit raising maneuvers, and up to 40 of the satellites will reenter or already have reentered the Earth’s atmosphere. The deorbiting satellites pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric reentry—meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts hit the ground. This unique situation demonstrates the great lengths the Starlink team has gone to ensure the system is on the leading edge of on-orbit debris mitigation.