A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched 49 Starlink satellites on Thursday (Feb. 3) from NASA’s historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A day later, a geomagnetic storm above Earth increased the density of the atmosphere slightly, increasing drag on the satellites and dooming most of them.
SpaceX reported last night (February 8, 2022) in its Updates area that 40 of the 49 Starlink satellites it launched to low Earth orbit on February 3 are now doomed by a geomagnetic storm. Such storms are disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field caused by activity on the sun. The satellites were part of SpaceX’s grand plan to launch thousands of Starlink satellites for global internet access. SpaceX said:
The 49 satellites SpaceX launched last week were deployed in an initial orbit that skimmed as low as 130 miles (210 kilometers) above Earth at its lowest point. SpaceX has said it intentionally releases Starlink batches in a low orbit so that they can be disposed of swiftly in case of a failure just after launch. That orbit design, it turned out, left the fleet vulnerable to Friday’s geomagnetic storm.
Now-defunct satellites are expected to fall back to Earth in the coming days and burn up in the atmosphere.
Geomagnetic storms result from explosive events on the sun, called solar flares. These events have the potential to hurtle charged solar particles across space to the Earth. The impact causes a geomagnetic storm, an event associated with Earth’s beautiful auroras or northern lights.
But these events also cause Earth’s atmosphere to warm and “puff up.” Low-orbiting satellites will feel increased atmospheric drag in an atmosphere puffed up during a geomagnetic storm. SpaceX said:
“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 wrote of the satellites’ reentry. “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.”
Each Starlink satellite is 10 1/2 feet (3.2 meters) x 5 1/4 feet (1.6 meters) and weights 573 pounds (260 kilograms).
Some of the doomed satellites will be reentering the atmosphere during the next few days, and although it’s still uncertain exactly where and when, just in case, keep looking up!
SpaceX said the positions of the spacecraft were adjusted to try to shield them from the storm and minimize drag, but assessments revealed that the company will be unable to boost many of the newly launched satellites into their higher, operational orbits.
As a result, “up to 40 of the satellites will reenter or already have reentered the Earth’s atmosphere,” the company said in the statement.
SpaceX has been launching fleets of Starlink satellites, sometimes up to 60 at a time, since 2019 to build a megaconstellation in orbit that could number up to 42,000 satellites one day. The project is aimed at providing high-speed internet access to customers anywhere on Earth, especially in remote or underserved areas, SpaceX has said.
Though the doomed Starlink satellites are not expected to languish in orbit or generate space junk that reaches Earth’s surface, the venture has been at the center of debates about the safe and sustainable use of space.
The incident highlights the hazards faced by numerous companies planning to put tens of thousands of small satellites in orbit to provide internet service from space. And it’s possible that more solar outbursts will knock some of these newly deployed orbital transmitters out of the sky. The sun has an 11-year-long cycle in which it oscillates between hyperactive and quiescent states.
In January 2022, SpaceX passed a 2,000-satellite milestone with its Starlink mission. The overall plan for thousands of Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit has caused controversy in the astronomy community.