Feb 9 (Forbes) – SpaceX announced today that is in the process of losing up to 40 of its recently launched Starlink satellites due to a geomagnetic storm. That’s almost 80% of the 49 the company just launched five days ago.
“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 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 satellites were in a relatively low 210 kilometer or 130 mile-high temporary orbit (at their lowest point).
A geomagnetic storm is the result of a sudden increase in the Sun’s solar wind interacting with Earth’s magnetic field. They can cause “space weather” events that can disrupt electrical systems on earth and result in radiation damage for people outside of our magnetic field on a space station or ship.
And clearly, they can also cause disturbances in the outer layers of the earth’s atmosphere.
SpaceX says it commanded the recently-launched satellites to turn edge-on to the atmosphere when it detected the geomagnetic storm, therefore presenting as low a profile as possible to the whiffs of atmosphere they started to unexpectedly encounter.
However, even that minimized drag caused the satellites to fail to exit their launch state safe mode, and they could not be commanded to boost to a higher orbit after the geomagnetic storm.
About 40 will de-orbit, therefore, SpaceX says.
They do not pose a risk to humans, animal life, or other satellites however.
“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,” SpaceX says. “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.”
Existing Starlink satellites in higher operational orbits were not affected, it seems.
Since SpaceX’s cost to launch a Falcon 9 rocket is reportedly around $15 million (perhaps $30 million when you factor in a share of overall development cost) and most of the satellites are “demised,” to use SpaceX lingo, the company has just burned about $12 million that will not see a return from Starlink internet customers ($24 million if you factor in development costs).
Space travel and satellites are an expensive and risky proposition.
However, SpaceX currently has almost 2,000 Starlink satellites in orbit currently, and has recently expanded the availability of its Starlink satellite internet service. When complete, the Starlink constellation will comprise approximately 4,400 satellites in five distinct orbital shells.