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Geomagnetic storm destroys SpaceX satellites just days after launch

Image credit: reuters

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has said that up to 40 satellites that were launched in orbit last week have been effectively destroyed by a geomagnetic storm occurring high up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Starlink service has been designed to provide broadband internet using its own constellation of satellites, which function as a wireless network providing continuous coverage across the planet for Internet of Things devices, particularly in remote areas in industries such as agriculture and maritime.

SpaceX launched 49 Starlink satellites to low-Earth orbit last Thursday on the back of a Falcon 9 rocket.

They were quickly shifted into their intended orbit, roughly 210km above Earth, and the firm confirmed that each satellite managed to achieve controlled flight.

Initially, SpaceX deploys its satellites into these lower orbits so they can be quickly deorbited by atmospheric drag if initial system checks show that they will not function correctly.

“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,” SpaceX said in a blog post.

Unfortunately for the firm, the satellites deployed on Thursday were significantly impacted by a geomagnetic storm occurring just the following day.

These storms cause the atmosphere to warm and increase the atmospheric density at the initial low deployment altitudes.

“Onboard GPS suggests the escalation speed and severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50 per cent higher than during previous launches,” SpaceX added.

The Starlink team put their satellites into safe-mode where they would fly “edge-on” to minimise the effect of drag.

But a preliminary analysis has shown that the increased drag at the low altitudes prevented the satellites from leaving safe-mode to begin raising their orbit.

This meant that up to 40 of the satellites will re-enter or already have re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.

“The deorbiting satellites pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric re-entry – 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 to ensure the system is on the leading edge of on-orbit debris mitigation,” SpaceX said.

The Starlink constellation already consists of over 1,700 satellites, with tens of thousands of small satellites still to launch. While satellite internet coverage reaches most of Earth, service can only be accessed in countries that have licensed SpaceX to provide the service.

In December, the head of the European Space Agency urged European leaders to intervene in Musk’s space programme saying that he was exerting too much control over the market.

The speed with which the Starlink satellites have been launched has raised concerns relating to their impact on astronomy and the crowding of low-Earth orbit, which amplifies the risk of damage due to space debris.

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