SpaceX loses over 40 Starlink satellites in a geomagnetic storm

They had barely reached their intended orbits.
Ameya Paleja
Starlink satellites reentering the atmospherekevinizooropa/YouTube

Elon Musk's SpaceX faced an unanticipated bump in its plans to increase the number of its orbiting Starlink satellites when a geomagnetic storm hit the Earth's atmosphere on Friday. In a press release, the company said that as many as 40 satellites may have been lost. 

SpaceX's Starlink offers satellite-based internet services to its over 145,000 customers in over 25 countries across the world, a CNBC report had said last month. Apart from serving customers in remote locations, the company is also hopeful in serving humanitarian causes, such as returning internet services to the volcano-hit island of Tonga. However, the quality of Starlink's services is dependent on the number of satellites that it places in the orbit and according to some current estimates, SpaceX plans to launch over 12,000 such satellites in its initial phase. 

Aiding this cause is SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket that has perfected placing these satellites in their orbit and almost secured one more such feat with its February 3rd launch. According to the update posted on SpaceX's website, the rocket had deployed 49 Starlink satellites in low orbits at a perigee (closest point to Earth) of approximately 130 miles (210 km). 

SpaceX claims that it purposely deploys its satellites at low altitudes to ensure that the satellites which are unfit for operation following initial system checkout are deorbited by atmospheric drag. However, a geomagnetic storm that hit the Earth's atmosphere shortly after Starlink's satellites were placed in these orbits, prevented SpaceX from raising the satellites to their intended orbits. 

According to the update, the atmospheric drag in the area increased by as much as 50 percent due to the geomagnetic storm following which the SpaceX team decided to switch the satellites to a safe mode and let them orbit "edge-on" to minimize the drag they were experiencing. Unfortunately, though, this maneuver to take cover from the storm did not work out in SpaceX's favor and as many as 40 satellites did not partake in their orbit raising maneuvers.

Starlink and its many satellites have already drawn the ire of many astronomers for photobombing their view of the night sky. Its satellites are also notorious for hundreds of near-collisions they are involved in every week.

In its statement, SpaceX clarified that these satellites will either soon or may already have entered the Earth's atmosphere and burned up on re-entry, posing no danger to other satellites or on the ground either. 

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