Dozens of Starlink Satellites Lost to Geomagnetic Storm Following Launch
SpaceX launches a lot of satellites. So many, in fact, that it has quickly become the largest single satellite operator on Earth as it bulks up its Starlink network. With more than 2,000 individual internet nodes in orbit, SpaceX can afford to lose one here and there. It’s less than ideal when dozens of them go offline, as just happened after the most recent launch. In a mission update, the company explains that a geomagnetic storm caused most of the satellites from last week’s Falcon 9 launch to fail.
The Falcon 9 has proven itself to be an extremely reliable rocket, now certified to carry humans to and from orbit. The reusable first stage design allows SpaceX to refurbish the hardware to save money on future launches. The same booster can deliver hundreds of satellites to orbit 60 at a time, whereas other rockets are “one and done.” That’s how SpaceX deployed 2,000 satellites in such a short period of time.
The most recent launch on February 3rd went off without a hitch. The company used the pre-flown B1061 booster. This is the same vehicle that powered the NASA Crew-1 and Crew-2 launches. This was its sixth launch overall. Following the launch, a geomagnetic storm moved in. These events are the result of charged particles from a coronal mass ejection or other events on the surface of the sun. These particles interact with the atmosphere and cause disturbances that can severely impact satellites in low orbits, and that’s where SpaceX’s newly launched satellites were.
SpaceX often starts new Starlink nodes in a low orbit, in this case at an altitude of just 130 miles (210 kilometers). If satellites don’t pass system checks, they can be easily deorbited by atmospheric drag. However, the geomagnetic storm caused the atmosphere to warm up and become denser. Telemetry from the spacecraft showed drag increased by approximately 50 percent.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) February 3, 2022
When they detected the issue, controllers instructed the satellites to enter safe mode, in which they fly edge-on to minimize drag. Yet, SpaceX now says that 40 of the 49 satellites from last week’s launch have slowed down so much they will not be able to remain in orbit. Some have already re-entered the atmosphere, and the rest are expected to follow in the coming days. SpaceX designed these objects to break up in the atmosphere, so there’s no need to look suspiciously skyward.
“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,” the company said. Debris or no, SpaceX is changing the environment around Earth in major ways. It’s on track to get approval for up to 42,000 Starlink nodes, and the constellation already in orbit has caused headaches for astronomers. Increasing the size of the constellation is key to expanding access to Starlink’s internet service, which has seen high demand since its launch in 2020.