Space

Solar storm deorbits up to 40 of SpaceX's Starlink satellites

Solar storm deorbits up to 40 ...
Artist's concept of Starlink satellites
Artist's concept of Starlink satellites
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Artist's concept of Starlink satellites
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Artist's concept of Starlink satellites
Starlink satellites before deployment
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Starlink satellites before deployment

SpaceX has lost up to 40 satellites of its Starlink internet constellation due to a geomagnetic storm that is knocking them out of orbit. The satellites were part of a batch of 49 that were launched on February 3 and had not reached their operational altitude.

One of the dramatic innovations of recent space technology is the ability to launch not just one or two satellites at one time, but enormous numbers of them. Thanks to improvements in rockets and reductions in satellite sizes, one launcher can put more satellites into space than the entire world could in one year in the early 1960s.

That means it's now possible to build giant constellations of satellites like Starlink, which numbers over 1,700, quickly with relatively few launches. The downside is that it's a bit like putting all of your eggs in one basket, and if something goes wrong it can affect a large number of satellites.

When SpaceX launched 49 Starlink satellites on February 3 from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, it was a technical success. The lift off went without a major hitch and the satellites deployed, going into a low-altitude orbit of about 130 miles (210 km) for systems checks. Any craft that went dead or didn't pass the checks could then be left to safely reenter the Earth's atmosphere via atmospheric drag and burn up safely.

Starlink satellites before deployment
Starlink satellites before deployment

This was all normal, but on February 4 a geomagnetic storm, caused by the solar wind interacting with the Earth's magnetic field, struck. This made the Earth's atmosphere expand, increasing atmospheric drag at the altitude of the newly deployed satellites. This forced SpaceX engineers to put the spacecraft into safe mode and angled their long solar panels edge on to the path of flight to reduce drag.

According to the company, GPS telemetry from the satellites and radar tracking by the US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron and LeoLabs showed that the storm had increased drag by up to 50 percent. This caused the satellites to remain in safe mode, meaning they could not raise their orbits and 40 of the 49 craft have either already reentered the atmosphere or will do so shortly.

SpaceX says that the returning satellites pose no public danger, will not strike any other satellites, and no debris will reach the ground.

Source: SpaceX

4 comments
4 comments
Expanded Viewpoint
Well that sure is odd!! Why aren't there any stories going out about OTHER satellites being deorbited, or at the least knocked out of their track by this sudden and vicious solar wind storm? Don't the mini sats have to be taken up to their final orbital altitude because they have no propulsion systems? That would mean that they would all have to be in the lift vehicle, and it would come down as one big mass, unless they were jettisoned and each allowed to fall back down again, in which case Mission Control would know all about it, and there would be no mystery as to what happened. Something doesn't add up here!!
Lamar Havard
Expanded Viewpoint - The Space-X satellites were the only ones that weren't high enough to not be effected by the increased drag of the swollen atmosphere, since they were waiting in a lower orbit to be tested before going higher.
Eddy
Sounds like they do have a propulsion system to get them to and maintain ultimate orbit.
Ragnor
@Eddy: I would be quite surprised if picture 2 isn't showing a whole row of 3 rocket nozzles.