SpaceX loses dozens of Starlink satellites after solar storm
Up to 40 Starlink satellites launched at the start of February are expected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere after a geomagnetic storm prevented them from increasing their altitude.
SpaceX launched 49 Starlink internet constellation satellites atop a Falcon 9 at 1:13 p.m. EST (18:13 UTC) Feb. 3, 2022, from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They were deployed in an orbit with a low point of about 130 miles (210 kilometers) and achieved controlled flight shortly thereafter.
“Unfortunately, the satellites deployed on Thursday were significantly impacted by a geomagnetic storm on Friday,” SpaceX said in a Feb. 8 update. “These storms cause the atmosphere to warm and atmospheric density at our low deployment altitudes to increase.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center, the geomagnetic storm was produced by a solar flare Jan. 29 and was predicted to arrive as early as Feb. 2 and likely to persist into Feb. 3 with minor intensity predicted on launch day.
SpaceX said onboard GPS “suggests the escalation speed and severity of the storm” caused the drag produced by the thickening atmosphere to increase by up to 50 percent higher than previous launches.
To prepare for the storm, SpaceX said it commanded the satellites into safe mode and commanded them to fly edge-on in its orbit to minimize drag. Each Starlink spacecraft looks like a flat rectangular panel.
However, SpaceX said preliminary analysis showed 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 49 are expected to reenter or have already reentered Earth’s atmosphere.
“SpaceX deploys its satellites into these lower obits so that in the very rare case any satellite does not pass initial system checkouts it will quickly be deorbited by atmospheric drag,” SpaceX’s update reads.
The company said it is working with the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron, as well as LeoLabs, to provide updates on the satellites based on ground-based radar, adding “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.”
Called Group 4-7, this was the third dedicated Starlink mission of 2022 and the spacecraft were set to join the roughly 2,000 other Starlink satellites in orbit. It was the sixth of 30 planned launches to fill the constellation’s fourth shell.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity.