SpaceX launches a new fleet of Starlink internet satellites

After losing 38 earlier satellites to a geomagnetic storm.
Brad Bergan
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifting off.SpaceX / Twitter

SpaceX has successfully launched a new fleet of Starlink satellites in the wake of a minor technical tragedy for the company, according to a tweet from Elon Musk's private aerospace firm.

The 46 Starlink satellites were lofted atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at roughly 9:44 AM EST, and streamed live on the firm's YouTube channel.

This puts SpaceX back on track after losing 38 of 49 Starlink satellites earlier this month, due to a geomagnetic storm.

SpaceX's clockwork launch after a short delay

Roughly nine minutes post-liftoff, the first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 returned to the atmosphere, and made a perfect landing on the firm's Atlantic Ocean-based droneship, called "A Shortfall of Gravitas," stationed a few hundred miles from the coast of Florida.

This mission was initially slated for Sunday morning, but it was delayed for a day in light of unfavorable weather for the droneship rocket recovery. "Due to recovery weather, now targeting Monday, February 21 at 9:44 a.m. EST for launch of Starlink," wrote Musk's aerospace firm in a Saturday tweet. But Monday's weather was excellent, setting the stage for a clockwork launch.

A quick recovery after losing 38 satellites to a geomagnetic storm

This marks SpaceX's fourth launch of colossal Starlink batches in 2022, with two going up in January, and another on February 3. But, a massive solar eruption caused a geomagnetic storm in Earth's upper atmosphere, increasing drag on the firm's last batch of Starlink satellites. This slowed 40 of the 49 satellites enough for the firm to expect to lose them all. However, only 38 fell to their doom, and burned up in the atmosphere, with the others raising themselves into operational orbits, according to a Spaceflight Now report.

As of writing, SpaceX has already lifted 2,100 Starlink satellites into orbit, and more than 200 have fallen from orbit due to decommissioning, or outright failure. But, in Musk's eyes, the firm is only getting started — it already has the approval to launch another 12,000, and is seeking permission to lift another 30,000 satellites in the near future. This comes a few weeks after NASA's warning that SpaceX's second-generation (Gen2) of Starlink satellites would bring "additional risk of debris-generating collision events based on the number of objects alone," according to a five-page letter from the agency.

NASA warns of higher-frequency space collisions

As of writing, NASA monitors 25,000 orbital objects, including the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, and thousands of additional satellites pointed both toward space, and back at Earth. And all of these have the potential to become space junk — high-velocity debris that can pose a serious threat to public, private, crewed, and even national security assets in low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Even if SpaceX and other firms and agencies ceased installing all additional assets in LEO, NASA fears we've already passed a "tipping point," where debris will continue to build up, said David Kessler in a report from Scientific American. And, with the increasing likelihood of anti-satellite missile tests in the wake of one from Russia last year — which put astronauts aboard the ISS at serious risk — in addition to China complaining that two Starlink satellites nearly smashed into its new space station, the problem of space junk has grown to become an international concern. Time will tell how private aerospace firms, government agencies, and public opinion turn as dangerous near-collision events become more frequent, in the coming years.