40 of the 49 Starlink satellites that Elon Musk’s company launched in February will be destroyed. This has been determined by SpaceX itself, which in a statement explains that a geomagnetic storm has affected its satellites to provide internet.
On February 3, up to 49 Starlink satellites were launched with the Falcon 9 into low Earth orbit. But it turns out that they have started to fall due to a solar storm that has caused “up to 50% more resistance than during previous launches,” explained SpaceX. In other words, the satellites launched could not reach their proper orbit around the Earth because of the brake posed by the solar particles and because of this they will be disintegrated with the atmosphere instead of reaching their destination.
Solar storms: direct enemy of the Internet
At the end of January, a Spanish amateur astronomer saw a Starlink satellite disintegrate as it re-entered the atmosphere, causing a kind of fireball that crossed the whole of Spain and ended up falling into the Cantabrian Sea. The fall of Starlink satellites is not an isolated event, although SpaceX explains that satellites that leave orbit have a zero collision risk, since by design it avoids creating orbital debris that could touch the ground.
It is therefore not the risk of collision that concerns SpaceX, but the proper functioning of a large part of the satellites. The company explains that they tried to make them glide into a stable orbit with a “safe mode”, but they have not managed to save them. Forty out of 49 satellites, or about 80%, of those launched in February have been destroyed or will soon be destroyed.
Geomagnetic or solar storms are a disturbance that can be caused by a shock wave of solar wind interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field. The storms cause the atmosphere to warm and increase the atmospheric density at low altitudes of the deployment.
GPS data from the satellites suggest that the severity of the storm increased drag by 50% over previous launches.
According to SpaceX data, there are already more than 2,000 satellites in orbit. Losing those launched is an insignificant percentage compared to the 12,000 they plan to launch in the coming years. However, losing almost all the satellites launched with the Falcon 9 at once is a fact to be taken into account for the future.