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Forty just-launched Starlink satellites lost because of geomagnetic storm

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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Conscious Choice does more however. In telling the tragic history of the Virginia colony and the rise of slavery there, Zimmerman lays out the proper path for creating healthy societies in places like the Moon and Mars.

 

“Zimmerman’s ground-breaking history provides every future generation the basic framework for establishing new societies on other worlds. We would be wise to heed what he says.” —Robert Zubrin, founder of founder of the Mars Society.

 

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15 comments

  • Joe

    SpaceX was unlucky in that several things seemed to compound to make normal operations difficult. It happens. All the people ganging up on Elon and SpaceX have nothing better to do.

    Space is hard. I know from experience. It is not for the faint at heart. At least Musk is trying. I mean, he could go and retire and worry one jot about the people of Earth but he sticks it out.

  • t-dub

    Bob, great to see your thoughts on this story. I had no idea that a geomagnetic storm could warm the atmosphere enough, to create enough drag, to compromise recently launched satellites. Space is difficult and can never be taken for granted, especially human spaceflight. In spite of the SpaceX detractors out there, I feel that they did everything they could to save the hardware by flying edge on etc. It appears that maybe going into safe mode might have compounded the problem which is more than a double “whammy”. At least SpaceX seems to have a good supply of hardware, not only already in orbit but upcoming as well, with an economical launch capability to make it happen. My guess is this will be a very small blip in the Starlink program overall, however, it is unprecedented to lose such a compliment and in this particular manner. Absolutely fascinating.

  • Gary

    In better news, Starship is being lifted onto Superheavy right now

    https://youtu.be/aMBPHmIhtrg

  • wayne

    Joe / t-dub-
    good stuff.

    Can anyone point me to a source who has done some cost-accounting guestimates on how much it costs spacex, internally, to launch a single star link satellite? Not concerned with accuracy per se, just trying to get a relative dollar amount.
    One thing Musk understands, is the necessity of rapidly scaling up a Thing. Reusability of the transport is the killer-app here. I can’t imagine spacex is not The low-cost provider.

  • Alton

    It was at Midnight that the Monster arm got Starship 20 over the “Yardarm”…

    With 22,000 watching NasaSpaceFlight on You Tube.

    NeatO

  • t-dub

    Wayne. Although its unclear, to me anyways, how much each Starlink satellite costs exactly, plus launch etc, there is one quote that helps a little:

    ” . .. the company’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, said in 2019 that the price was well below $1 million a piece.”

    Hmm . . . each, ok. So lets say they had $40 million in payload there, plus the launch vehicle with its fair share of research and development costs, plus recovery etc. I guess rockets are fairly rapid depreciating assets and should be treated as such but reusability like SpaceX might actually let you depreciate this asset over time, on the books, which is pretty cool. So, no idea to the total $$$ but it would be interesting to know.

  • Questioner

    Mr. Z.:

    I would appreciate it if you would report in balanced manner on the activities of Elon Musk and SpaceX. Yes, even if you criticize them, there are plenty of occasions for this and not only celebrate them indefinitely. I could actually extend this requirement to the whole topic of space. But probably this contradicts the intentions of this channel and its purpose of existence.

  • Jeff

    Reentry over Puerto Rico.
    https://youtu.be/a7KUSN89-A0
    3:06 min

  • David Eastman

    Questioner, I don’t see much room to criticize SpaceX here. This is not old space, where a launch costs hundreds of millions of dollars, and a satellite costs billion, and losing one is a BIG DEAL. A Falcon 9 launch costs I think around $10 million now? And each Starlink sat is estimated at around $1 million. And the whole thing is still in early learning/prototype stages, where they are expecting issues. Even in the end game, these satellites are only expected to last for around three years anyways. So it’s just not a very big investment to lose. And clearly SpaceX is running the business that way, and as has now been demonstrated, they’ve deliberately rebalanced from the old space “this must go to orbit and be operational, all other priorities be damned” to “this must launch quickly, repeatably, cheaply, and responsibly” and that last part just got a good test.

  • Bob

    I hope all the morons satellites fall out of the sky.

  • Questioner

    David Eastman:

    There are at least two areas that should be critically examined at SpaceX. On the one hand, that would be the unrealistic goal of colonizing Mars and, on the other hand, it would be an attempt to estimate the true costs of development and operation. The owner of this blog seems to take the notoriously unreliable information from Elon Musk in this regard at face value. As an example, I would like to cite the claim of Starship’s launch cost of $2 million, which Mr. Zimmerman simply adopts. Of course, this number is total nonsense, the sum is just enough for the propellant.

  • Edward

    Joe wrote: “Space is hard. I know from experience.

    Amen. Although I haven’t lost anything that I worked on directly, I had worked on proposals for two space instruments that never got the chance to turn on in orbit. The first instrument was lost when the host satellite failed shortly after reaching orbit, and the second (four copies of the same instrument) was lost when Cluster (four identical satellites) was destroyed with the Ariane 501 launch. Getting there is hard. Staying there is hard. Working there is hard.

    wayne asked: “Can anyone point me to a source who has done some cost-accounting guestimates on how much it costs spacex, internally, to launch a single star link satellite?

    If SpaceX is doing it right, then they are charging Starlink full price for a launch. Otherwise the SpaceX investors are subsidizing the Starling investors.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zku7Hstjv8A#t=1020 (next 4 minutes)

    Questioner,
    You wrote: “I would appreciate it if you would report in balanced manner on the activities of Elon Musk and SpaceX.

    Since you know the balancing facts, perhaps you could provide these for us in order to provide the balanced reporting. You complain about the projected launch cost of Starship, but you didn’t present what you believe to be a realistic value for comparison and an explanation as to why it should cost that much. SpaceX should have better knowledge of what they expect to be able to do with Starship; after all, it is their design, being made to their own requirements and specifications. At this point, it looks like you present only opinion.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zku7Hstjv8A#t=1245 (point is made in the next 4 minutes, and it, too, is only a guess)

    But what is wrong with pointing out the low cost of flying Starship? It is clearly less expensive per pound or kilogram than any currently flying or proposed launch vehicle, and the cost is so low that planetary scientists have made a big deal out of the opportunities it presents.
    https://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/points-of-information/scientists-nasa-needs-to-catch-up-to-spacex-for-using-its-starship-for-future-manned-and-unmanned-missions/

  • wayne

    t-dub:
    Is that $1 million each, ‘landed’ in space? or is that how much they each cost?

    Edward–
    ref– spacex internally billing starlink– of course you are correct on the cross-subsidizing thing.

    I’m just highly interested in what their relative marginal costs are.

    What is the rough guestimate of the marginal cost of a single falcon 9 launch?
    Ass-uming: start with a brand-new complete rocket and re-use the first stage 10 times.

  • Edward

    Wayne,
    The Apogee video guesses that a Falcon 9 launch is less than $28 million. At that price, 49 satellites cost around $2/3 million each for launch. I don’t know what the second version of Starlink cost to manufacture, but the rumor was the first version was down around $1 million. If Starlink is going to make money with 30,000 satellites, then each one is going to have to cost less than that.

  • wayne

    Edward-
    thanks for that factoid, just trying to get an idea of the magnitude of their internally low costs. (given that you never launch just one (starlink) satellite at a time.)

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