SpaceX revealed today that because of the unexpected and ill-timed arrival of a geomagnetic storm from the Sun, 40 of the 49 Starlink satellites launched on February 3rd were lost and will quickly burn up in the atmosphere. As noted at Teslarati:
SpaceX says it “commanded the satellites into a safe-mode where they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper) to minimize drag” as soon as it was aware of the issue but that “the increased drag…prevented the satellites from leaving safe-mode to begin orbit raising maneuvers.” Based on that phrasing, the most obvious explanation is that the added drag caused up to 40 of the satellites to fall far enough into the atmosphere that their ion thrusters would no longer be able to raise their orbits faster than the drag was lowering them. Raising their solar arrays into the position needed for maximum power generation (and thus maximum sustained thrust) would also drastically accelerate reentry.
A lot of the press and those who love to attack SpaceX have made a big deal about this, but the real news of this story is the unprecedented impact of a geomagnetic storm on some newly launched satellites. Such a thing has never happened before, and only happened now because SpaceX does not raise the orbits of any Starlink into a more stable orbit before making sure the satellite is functioning properly. If it is not, the company leaves it in a low orbit so it quickly burns up and does not add to the amount of space junk in orbit. This approach is also somewhat unprecedented, but it also demonstrates SpaceX’s generally rational and responsible approach to what it does in commercial space.
Because of this approach, however, these satellites were vulnerable to this storm. The timing had to be just perfect to destroy them, and sadly for SpaceX it was. I fully expect SpaceX to add solar activity as a factor in timing future Starlink launches.
Note: I didn’t initially comment because I don’t see this as that big a deal. The effort to slander SpaceX by some (see the quotes for example near the end of this article) however changed my mind.
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