SpaceX has confirmed that at least 40 Starlink satellites will be destroyed, after a geomagnetic space storm last week.
Elon Musk’s space venture said that on Thursday 3 February a Falcon 9 rocket had launched 49 Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The company is planning an average of one launch per week for 2022.
The 49 satellites were deployed into their intended orbit, approximately 210 kilometers (130 miles) above the Earth, and each satellite achieved controlled flight.
SpaceX said it deploys its satellites into these lower orbits so that in the very rare case any satellite does not pass initial system checkouts it will quickly be deorbited by atmospheric drag, and hence burn up on re-entry.
“Unfortunately, the satellites deployed on Thursday were significantly impacted by a geomagnetic storm on Friday,” said SpaceX. “These storms cause the atmosphere to warm and atmospheric density at our low deployment altitudes to increase.”
“In fact, onboard GPS suggests the escalation speed and severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50 percent higher than during previous launches,” it said. “The Starlink team commanded the satellites 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” – and continued to work closely with the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron and LeoLabs to provide updates on the satellites based on ground radars.”
But it seems the space storm has damaged at least 40 satellites and SpaceX cannot activate them from their safe-mode.
“Preliminary analysis show the increased drag at the low altitudes prevented the satellites from leaving safe-mode to begin orbit raising manoeuvrers, and up to 40 of the satellites will re-enter or already have re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere,” said SpaceX.
It stressed there is no danger to the public from falling satellites.
“The deorbiting satellites pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric re-entry – meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts hit the ground,” said SpaceX. “This unique situation demonstrates the great lengths the Starlink team has gone to ensure the system is on the leading edge of on-orbit debris mitigation.”
Earlier this week a team from SpaceX arrived in the South Pacific to work on reconnecting the Kingdom of Tonga to the internet after a devastating volcanic eruption.
A SpaceX team is currently in Fiji establishing a Starlink gateway station to reconnect Tonga to the world, said Fiji communications minister Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum on Twitter.
Tonga’s sole fibre-optic link to the internet was severed by the 15 January eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano.
The eruption blanketed the nation’s capital in ash and triggered a tsunami that destroyed villages and resorts.
Besides that, the other recent SpaceX development was in December, when SpaceX and Elon Musk were criticised, when China alleged that its space station was forced to take evasive action so as to avoid collision with Starlink satellites.
SpaceX’s Starlink has been launching thousands of satellites over the past two years into orbit for its satellite broadband service.
There are now said to be more than 2,000 Starlink satellites in orbit, although the intention is to eventually build a fleet of 42,000 constellation of satellites.
That said, SpaceX’s current Starlink constellation is only authorised for 4,408 satellites.
And it is fair to say that there is a well documented and growing problem of space debris and clutter, as there are reportedly nearly 30,000 satellites and other debris believed to be orbiting the planet.
Governments are being urged to share location data to reduce the risk of catastrophic space collisions.
In November Russia was heavily criticised for blowing up a satellite in orbit, creating creating a dangerous debris cloud which can be lethal to astronauts when on a space walk.
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