A significant number of SpaceX’s high-speed internet satellites were knocked out of orbit by a geomagnetic storm shortly after launch, but pose little threat to Earth as they burn up in the atmosphere, the company said. But with 40 of the 49 internet satellites from SpaceX’s latest launch knocked out by the freak accident, questions arise over the viability of the ambitious ‘constellation’ of Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) to deliver High-speed, low-latency internet around the world.
Geomagnetic storms are caused by ejections from the solar corona into space, causing disturbances in Earth’s upper atmosphere and increased drag on objects in low orbit. The last 49 Internet satellites of the SpaceX Starlink network launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on February 3 and successfully took their initial orbit, with their closest approach to the surface 130 miles (210 kilometers) from high.
The company places them in this region to perform final checks before flying further into space. On February 4, however, they were hit by the space weather event, Elon Musk’s SpaceX said in a statement late February 9. “These storms are causing the atmosphere to heat up and increase atmospheric density at our lower deployment altitudes. In fact, onboard GPS suggests that the storm’s escalating speed and severity caused an increase in atmospheric drag up to 50% greater than that of previous launches,” the statement read.
The Starlink team ordered the satellites into safe mode, where they would fly abreast – like a sheet of paper – to minimize drag as they sought shelter. But despite the evasive maneuver, most were unable to raise their orbit, and no less than 40 “will enter or have already entered Earth’s atmosphere.”
The company insisted they posed no risk of collision with other satellites and were designed to disintegrate upon re-entry, with no debris expected to hit the ground. The British space agency agreed in a detailed document blog post that there was “virtually no risk” since the satellites are built without any dense metal components and should burn out entirely, but said he was watching closely. NASA has yet to comment.
In addition to increasing atmospheric drag, geomagnetic storms can wreak havoc on satellites’ computer circuits and thus cause them to crash, according to space industry analyst Seradata. Whatever the exact cause, the loss could indicate a design weakness in Starlink satellites’ ability to weather such storms, Seradata’s David Todd wrote in a post.
But this shouldn’t impact the overall functioning of the Starlink “constellation”. SpaceX has launched more than 2,000 of these low-latency internet satellites since May 2019, of which more than 1,500 are currently operational, providing internet coverage over most of the planet.
Development of Starlink’s network began in 2015, with the first prototype satellites launched into orbit in 2018. SinceSpaceX has deployed more than 1,000 Starlink satellites into orbit on more than 20 successful launches. SSatellite internet technology has been around for decades, involving the delivery of internet data, not via cables, but via radio signals across the vacuum of space. Ground stations on the planet transmit the signals to orbiting satellites, which can then relay the data to users on Earth. One of the major existing providers has been HughesNet, which relies on satellites 22,000 miles above the planet.
SpaceX’s system improves on the technology in several notable ways. First, the company wants to use LEO satellites that circle the planet only about 300 miles above the surface. The shortened distance can dramatically improve internet speeds while reducing latency. Second, SpaceX wants to launch up to 40,000 satellites in the coming years to power the system, ensuring global coverage without service interruption.
The company currently has regulatory approval for 12,000 satellites, with plans to expand even further. Astronomers have expressed concerns about their impact on ground-based astronomy as they add to a cluttered environment in LEO. There are around 4,000 active satellites in this space, which extends up to 1,200 miles above the surface, as well as 15,000 pieces of debris like rocket bodies and defunct probes, according to the UK Space Agency. .