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SpaceX loses 40 Starlink satellites to geomagnetic storm

Space business is risky business and SpaceX is currently counting its losses. 40 of its internet satellites may have been destroyed by a geomagnetic storm.

SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space exploration company, is having a rough time with its Starlink satellites. Out of the 49 Starlink satellites recently launched, 40 are about to become useless and even burn up in the earth’s atmosphere. The February batch of satellites fell victim to a strong geomagnetic storm, preventing them from attaining their proper orbit around the earth.

The company attempted to move them edge-on or like a sheet of paper to cut down drag but it was impossible to park them as intended.

SpaceX has been on a satellite launching spree, using its rockets, and has put more than 2,000 units in orbit. This is to support its fast-growing satellite internet business which, even though still technically in beta, has attracted more than 100,000 users willing to pay at least $500 for the receiving dish and a $99 per month fee for unlimited and high-speed internet connection. The service is so oversubscribed that waiting times for a dish now run into months, if not years.

When its Starship rocket is ready, SpaceX plans to even ramp up satellite launches and the new spacecraft can carry more satellites per trip. Starship will make the launches far less expensive.

Being a satellite internet service, Starlink will eventually be available to everybody on earth, even in remote locations like jungles and deserts. SpaceX has formed partnerships with the big names in tech, including Google who would use the satellites to make its cloud services available to its clients, and Microsoft, which will set up remote datacenters that can work completely offline.

With more than 2,000 satellites already in orbit, SpaceX is not likely to be severely crippled by the loss of nearly a whole batch but the loss is expensive nevertheless.

SpaceX has always kicked against suggestions that its Starlink satellites could ruin space observations for astronomers who wish to take images for studies. It has incorporated several features to prevent this from happening.

Musk started Starlink to raise funds for his Mars colonization ambitions.

Here is SpaceX’s blog explaining what went wrong with its satellites:

On Thursday, February 3 at 1:13 p.m. EST, Falcon 9 launched 49 Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Falcon 9’s second stage deployed the satellites into their intended orbit, with a perigee of approximately 210 kilometers above Earth, and each satellite achieved controlled flight.

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. While the low deployment altitude requires more capable satellites at a considerable cost to us, it’s the right thing to do to maintain a sustainable space environment.

Unfortunately, the satellites deployed on Thursday were significantly impacted by a geomagnetic storm on Friday. 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. The Starlink team commanded the satellites into a safe-mode where they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper) to minimize drag—to effectively “take cover from the storm”—and continued to work closely with the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron and LeoLabs to provide updates on the satellites based on ground radars.

Preliminary analysis shows 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. 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. 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.

Written by HackerVibes

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