SpaceX says geomagnetic storm destroyed 40 Starlink satellites

(ORDO NEWS) — SpaceX has lost up to 40 brand new Starlink internet satellites due to a geomagnetic storm that hit just a day after last week’s launch.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched 49 Starlink satellites Thursday (Feb. 3) from NASA’s historic Site 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A day later, a geomagnetic storm over Earth slightly increased the density of the atmosphere, increasing the resistance of the satellites and dooming most of them to death.

“Preliminary analysis indicates that increased resistance at low altitudes prevented the satellites from exiting safe mode to begin orbit-raising maneuvers. About 40 satellites will or have already returned to Earth’s atmosphere,” SpaceX wrote in a statement on Tuesday (February 8).

Geomagnetic storms occur when intense solar wind near the Earth generates shifting currents and plasma in the Earth’s magnetosphere.

This interaction could heat up Earth’s upper atmosphere and increase the density of the atmosphere high enough above the planet to affect satellites in low orbits, such as SpaceX’s new Starlink satellites. Friday’s geomagnetic storm followed a solar flare on January 30 that sent a wave of charged particles toward Earth, arriving as expected on February 2.

The 49 satellites launched by SpaceX last week were deployed in an initial orbit that was 210 kilometers above Earth at its lowest point.

SpaceX said it deliberately leaves batches of satellites in low orbit so they can be disposed of quickly in the event of a failure – immediately after launch. It turned out that such an orbit left the satellites vulnerable to a geomagnetic storm on Friday.

“Deorbited satellites pose zero risk of collision with other satellites and by design die on re-entry,” SpaceX wrote of the satellites’ reentry.

SpaceX’s Starlink launch last week, dubbed the Starlink 4-7 mission, was the third in 2022. The 49 satellites on board were expected to join over 1,800 other Starlink satellites currently in orbit.

The mission was SpaceX’s third launch in four days – following the launch of an Italian Earth observation satellite on Jan. 31 and one for the US National Reconnaissance Agency on Feb. 2.

SpaceX is launching fleets of Starlink satellites, sometimes up to 60 at a time, to build a mega constellation in orbit that can hold up to 42,000 satellites. The project aims to provide high-speed Internet access to customers anywhere on Earth, especially in remote or underserved areas, SpaceX said in a statement.

The Starlink project has been criticized by astronomers due to the impact of the mega installation on astronomical observations, since a large number of satellites crossing the night sky can leave streaks in images from telescopes.

Since then, SpaceX has been working on limiting the visibility of its Starlink satellites to reduce their impact on the astronomical community.

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