Elon Musk's SpaceX to Lose Up to 40 Starlink Satellites After Geomagnetic Storm

The satellite debris burning up in the atmosphere was captured on video by the Sociedad de Astronomia del Caribe.

Tech News
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Elon Musk's SpaceX to Lose Up to 40 Starlink Satellites After Geomagnetic Storm

Elon Musk's SpaceX will lose up to 40 of the 49 Starlink satellites it launched into lower Earth orbit last week, as the result of a geomagnetic storm, the company has announced.

The satellites were hit by a phenomenon known as 'geomagnetic storm,' which increases the drag on the satellites, causing them to fall out of orbit.

The satellite debris burning up in the atmosphere was captured on video by the Sociedad de Astronomia del Caribe.

Scientists suggest that these storms will become more frequent in the coming years, as the sun enters a new solar cycle, potentially spelling doom for other satellites as well.


The Sun Is Waking Up

Every 11 years or so, the Sun's magnetic field completely flips and its north and south poles switch places.

The beginning of this cycle is a 'solar minimum', when the Sun has the least surface activity, and the middle of this cycle is a solar maximum when solar activity is at its maximum. At the end of a cycle, it fades back to the solar minimum and a new cycle begins.

The latest solar cycle began in December 2019, when solar activity was at its minimum, but now we're entering a period of solar maximum which is expected to hit by 2025.

The activity on the sun's surface will only increase from now, which means more solar flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and geomagnetic storms.

A solar flare is when the Sun spits out a lot of electromagnetic radiation at once. It is often accompanied by a CME, during which the sun releases electromagnetically charged plasma called solar wind.

When this collides with the Earth's magnetic field, it can cause temporary disturbances known as geomagnetic storms.

What Happened to the Satellites?

A powerful solar flare erupted from the Sun on 30 January. The charged particles from this eruption collided with the Earth's magnetic field in the beginning of February, leading to a geomagnetic storm.

This heated up the atmosphere, causing air to rise up and increase the atmosphere's density affecting satellites in low orbits.

According to SpaceX, its satellites are first deployed in an initial orbit that comes as low as 210 kilometers above the Earth, so that they can be disposed of swiftly in case of a failure just after launch. However, this plan backfired, because the initially low orbit exposed the satellites to more resistance during the geomagnetic storm, throwing them out of orbit.

"These storms cause the atmosphere to warm and atmospheric density at our low deployment altitudes to increase. In fact, onboard GPS suggests the escalation speed and severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50 percent higher than during previous launches."
SpaceX statement

The Starlink team commanded the satellites into a safe-mode "where they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper) to minimize drag" but the increased drag at "prevented the satellites from leaving safe-mode to begin orbit raising maneuvers."

"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," the company said.


What Is Starlink?

Starlink is SpaceX's satellite internet constellation, which aims to provide low-cost internet to remote locations. The service already has 1,469 Starlink satellites active and 272 moving to operational orbits soon, according to Musk.

"While most satellite internet services today come from single geostationary satellites that orbit the planet at about 35,000km, Starlink is a constellation of multiple satellites that orbit the planet much closer to Earth, at about 550 km, and cover the entire globe," says SpaceX.

SpaceX reportedly hopes to have as many as 42,000 satellites in its Starlink constellation, which has raised concerns at NASA.

"NASA has concerns with the potential for a significant increase in the frequency of conjunction events and possible impacts to NASA’s science and human spaceflight missions," the agency said in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission.

(With inputs from Space News)

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