A geomagnetic storm on February 4 “significantly impacted” the launch of some 49 Starlink satellites. The company said the satellites were intended to achieve low-Earth orbits after being sent aloft on a Falcon 9 launcher. Starlink is a satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX to provide satellite internet access. SpaceX said it initially deploys its satellites into low-Earth orbit so that “in the very rare case any satellite does not pass initial system checkouts, it will quickly be deorbited by atmospheric drag.” All did not go as planned, however.
“Unfortunately, the satellites deployed on February 3 were significantly impacted by a geomagnetic storm on Friday [February 4],” SpaceX announced this week. “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% higher than during previous launches.”
The satellites were commanded into a safe mode, where, as SpaceX explained, “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.”
A preliminary analysis showed that the increased drag at the low altitudes prevented the satellites from being moved into higher orbit, and up to 40 of the satellites will reenter, or already have reentered, Earth’s atmosphere.
“The deorbiting satellites pose zero collision risk with other satellites, and, by design, [burn up] upon atmospheric reentry — meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts hit the ground,” SpaceX said.