SpaceX’s Starlink Internet service has suffered a costly setback, with most of the satellites it launched last week suspected to have been destroyed by a geomagnetic storm.
The company said 40 out of the 49 satellites that were carried into space on a Falcon 9 rocket on Thursday, 3 February 2022, have re-entered or will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere after the storm prevented them from going into orbit.
A geomagnetic storm is a temporary disturbance of the Earth’s magnetosphere due to a solar wind shock wave, and when a magnetic cloud interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field.
Geomagnetic storms cause the atmosphere to warm and increase the atmospheric density at the altitudes that Starlink satellites are deployed.
Starlink’s latest batch of satellites encountered the storm on Friday, 4 February 2022.
Notably, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Centre warned about the storm a day before the launch.
SpaceX said data from the satellite’s onboard GPS systems showed the escalation speed and severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50% higher than during previous launches.
The Starlink team intervened by commanding the satellites to take cover from the storm by entering a safe mode where they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper) to minimize drag, but the storm proved too strong.
“Preliminary analysis shows the increased drag at the low altitudes prevented the satellites from leaving safe-mode to begin orbit raising manoeuvres, and up to 40 of the satellites will re-enter or already have re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere,” SpaceX said.
Satellites will burn up
SpaceX assured that the deorbiting satellites did not pose any collision risk with other satellites.
They would also burn up on atmospheric re-entry, meaning that no parts of the satellites would hit the ground.
Previous estimates claimed each Starlink satellite cost $250,000 (R3.8 million) to develop and build.
Based on that figure, the loss of 40 satellites possibly cost the company $10 million (R153.6 million).
That is without accounting for the estimated $15 million (R230.8 million) cost of launching a Falcon 9 rocket, although this exercise was not a complete loss, given that 9 of the satellites survived.