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 was launched on February 3 and had not reached their operational altitude.
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.
“Preliminary analysis show the increased drag at the low altitudes prevented the satellites from leaving safe mode to begin orbit-raising maneuvers, and up to 40 of the satellites will reenter or already have reentered the Earth’s atmosphere,” SpaceX wrote in an update Tuesday (Feb. 8).
Starlink is the company’s plan to build an interconnected network with thousands of satellites to deliver high-speed internet anywhere on the planet. SpaceX has launched about 1,900 Starlink satellites to orbit to date and has around 145,000 users of the service.
Tamitha Skov, a research scientist of the Aerospace Corp., broke down the basics of a geomagnetic storm for CNBC: First, “the sun shoots off magnets” in the form of a storm. The Earth’s magnetic shield dumps the solar storm’s energy into our planet’s upper atmosphere and heats it up, causing it to inflate and become denser. This increases the drag on satellites in low Earth orbit.
Geomagnetic storms occur when intense solar wind near Earth spawns shifting currents and plasmas in Earth’s magnetosphere, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center, which is operated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This interaction can warm Earth’s upper atmosphere and increase atmospheric density high enough above the planet to affect satellites in low orbits like SpaceX’s new Starlink craft. Friday’s geomagnetic storm came on the heels of a sun eruption on Jan. 30 that sent a wave of charged particles toward Earth that was expected to arrive on Feb. 2.
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.
SpaceX said that “the escalation speed and severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase” as much as 50% more than the satellites typically experience in low orbit. After the increased atmospheric drag was detected, the company’s operations team put the satellites into a fail-safe mode that rotates the spacecraft onto its edge to reduce drag — a position the company has previously described as a “shark-fin” orientation.
About 10 of the Starlink satellites are expected to survive and climb to their intended destination orbit.
SpaceX has been launching fleets of Starlink satellites, sometimes up to 60 at a time, since 2019 to build a mega constellation 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.
The Starlink project has come under criticism by astronomers due to the mega constellations’ impact on astronomical observations since the high number of satellites crossing the night sky can leave streaks in telescope views. Since then, SpaceX has worked to limit the visibility of their Starlink satellites to reduce their impact on the astronomy community.