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SpaceX loses Starlink satellites after geomagnetic storm

SpaceX has revealed that it could lose nearly all of the Starlink satellites that it launched last week after a geomagnetic storm disrupted their deployment.

The company said in a post on its website that a day after it deployed 49 Starlink internet satellites on Thursday, February 3, a geomagnetic storm struck Earth’s outer atmosphere. The phenomenon, which occurs when the sun fires off solar flares, resulted in a change in atmospheric density that will cause “up to 40” of the satellites to imminently lose altitude and burn up.

SpaceX explained that as with all of its Starlink missions, Thursday’s batch of 49 satellites was originally deployed at an altitude of about 130 miles (210 km), some way below the final operational orbit. This initial position ensures that if a Starlink satellite fails to begin functioning as it should, it will quickly deorbit and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, thereby preventing it from becoming a piece of hazardous space junk.

But the increased atmospheric density caused by Friday’s geomagnetic storm resulted in atmospheric drag on the satellites far greater than seen with previous launches.

The Starlink team responded by placing the satellites into safe mode to make them fly edge-on “like a sheet of paper” in a move designed to minimize the strength of the drag.

However, data revealed that the drag remained strong enough to prevent the satellites from executing orbit-raising maneuvers, with as many as 40 of the satellites expected to lose altitude and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

SpaceX was keen to point out that the satellites pose no collision risk as they lose altitude, adding that no space junk will be created, with no parts crashing to Earth, either.

Since 2019, SpaceX has launched more than 2,000 Starlink satellites for an internet-from-space service that currently has more than 145,000 customers across 25 countries. The main goal is to provide connectivity to remote areas, though the service is open to anyone within a serviceable area.

While a number of Starlink satellites are known to have malfunctioned and burned up in the early stages of deployment during previous missions, this most recent event looks set to be the largest single loss of satellites for SpaceX.

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Trevor Mogg
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