40 of 49 New SpaceX Satellites May Have Already Burned

Company says geomagnetic storm on Friday is cause
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 9, 2022 12:30 PM CST
Up to 40 New SpaceX Satellites Are Doomed
FILE - A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., carrying a batch of Starlink satellites, on Thursday.   (Craig Bailey/Florida Today via AP)

(Newser) – SpaceX launched 49 of its Starlink satellites on Thursday, only to report days later that up to 40 are doomed to fall from orbit and burn up in Earth's atmosphere. The company attributed the loss to a geomagnetic storm on Friday. That storm increased atmospheric density some 130 miles above Earth, where the satellites were to undergo initial system checks. "Onboard GPS suggests the escalation speed and severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50% higher than during previous launches," SpaceX said in a Tuesday update, per Space.com.

As such, the satellites were put "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,'" SpaceX said. But the increased drag "prevented the satellites from leaving safe-mode to begin orbit raising maneuvers," the company added, noting "up to 40 of the satellites will reenter or already have reentered the Earth's atmosphere." It added the satellites "by design demise upon atmospheric reentry" and there is "zero collision risk with other satellites."

SpaceX hopes to eventually launch 42,000 Starlink satellites as part of a project to bring high-speed internet access to customers even in remote areas, reports the Wall Street Journal. Some concerns have been raised about the 1,800 satellites so far in orbit. A study published Jan. 14 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters looked at photos taken by an instrument at the Palomar Observatory in Southern California; researchers found a 35-fold increase in the number of images corrupted by streaks from satellites between November 2019 and September 2021. Co-author Tom Prince told the Journal that scientific data could be compromised as a result, though SpaceX had "acted responsibly" by taking steps to limit the satellites' reflectivity. (China complains its space station was almost hit by the satellites.)

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