Geomagnetic storm destroys 40 Starlink satellites

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Up to 40 Starlink satellites, launched earlier this month as part of Elon Musk’s efforts to build a high-speed internet network, were lost after a recent geomagnetic storm in space, company officials confirmed. The storm, triggered by eruptions from the sun, destroyed most of the 49 Starlink satellites launched into orbit Thursday, according to SpaceX, the private aerospace company Musk founded. The now-defunct satellites are expected to fall back to Earth in the coming days and burn up in the atmosphere.

“The deorbiting satellites pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric reentry — meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts hit the ground,” SpaceX officials said. These storms cause the atmosphere to warm and atmospheric density at our low deployment altitudes to increase. In fact, onboard GPS suggests the escalation speed and severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50 percent higher than during previous launches. The Starlink team commanded the satellites into a safe-mode where they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper) to minimize drag—to effectively “take cover from the storm”—and continued to work closely with the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron and LeoLabs to provide updates on the satellites based on ground radars.

Preliminary analysis show the increased drag at the low altitudes prevented the satellites from leaving safe-mode to begin orbit raising maneuvers, and up to 40 of the satellites will reenter or already have reentered the Earth’s atmosphere. The deorbiting satellites pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric reentry—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 ensure the system is on the leading edge of on-orbit debris mitigation.