Feb 9, 2022 - Science

SpaceX loses dozens of Starlink satellites to solar storm

A Falcon 9 rocket carrying Starlink satellites to orbit

The Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Starlink satellites. Photo: SpaceX

SpaceX's most recent batch of Starlink satellites has been severely impacted by a solar storm that struck Earth's magnetic field on Friday.

Why it matters: Starlink — SpaceX's satellite internet venture — is expected to be a major source of revenue for the company, with hundreds of satellites already launched and functioning in orbit.

What's happening: The solar storm made atmospheric drag at least 50% higher than during other missions, according to SpaceX, effectively pulling the satellites back down to Earth not long after launch.

  • At least 40 of the satellites launched Thursday from Florida are expected to re-enter the atmosphere or have already re-entered.
  • "The de-orbiting 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 said in a statement.

How it works: SpaceX sends Starlink satellites to a low orbit and monitors the spacecraft for failure after launch.

  • That low altitude allows the company to de-orbit the satellites relatively quickly if a problem were to occur after launch.

The big picture: SpaceX isn't the only company working to build a fleet of internet-beaming satellites around Earth.

  • Amazon and others also have plans to launch satellites in the coming years, stoking fears that these small spacecraft could create more orbital debris if they fail and pollute the night sky with light that astronomers will have to contend with.
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