As part of its mission to provide high-speed internet access from space, SpaceX has launched hundreds of satellites into low-Earth orbit over the last three years as part of its business model. However, the company’s most recent deployment of 49 additional satellites after a Feb. 3 launch did not go as well as expected.
The result of a geomagnetic storm generated by a recent solar flare, up to 40 of the 49 recently launched Starlink satellites have been rendered inoperable. Currently, they are in the process of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, where they will be destroyed by the radiation.
The event serves as a reminder of the dangers that various firms confront as they prepare to launch tens of thousands of tiny satellites into orbit in order to offer internet connectivity from space. Furthermore, it is feasible that further solar outbursts will cause some of the newly placed orbital transmitters to fall out of the atmosphere. The sun has an 11-year cycle in which it oscillates between hyperactive and quiet phases, with each cycle lasting about one day. It is now ramping up to its apex, which is expected to occur around the year 2025.
According to the sun’s norms, this most recent solar paroxysm was quite mild. The University of Southampton’s Hugh Lewis is a space debris specialist who believes we will see an extreme event during the next solar cycle. “I have full confidence that we will witness an extreme occurrence during the next cycle,” Lewis stated. If a mild sun flare can knock out 40 Starlink satellites that are orbiting at low altitudes, a more powerful solar scream has the potential to do far more damage to SpaceX and other businesses’ massive spacecraft networks.
The sun, however, was erupting in a tremendous outburst of very energetic particles and magnetism known as a coronal mass ejection on Jan. 29, just days before these satellites were scheduled to launch. That coronal mass ejection landed at Earth somewhere around February 2, causing a geomagnetic storm in the planet’s magnetic field.
Particles in the Earth’s atmosphere gained kinetic energy as a result of the strong storm. ‘As a consequence of this, the atmosphere sort of balloons up and swells,’ Dr. Lewis said. This expansion creates a rise in the density of the atmosphere, which in turn increases the drag experienced by objects travelling through it, such as satellites, as a result of the expansion. This drag reduces the size of their orbits, causing them to be drawn closer to the dense, lower atmosphere in which they will burn up as a result.
It was discovered by SpaceX that the “escalation speed and intensity of the storm caused air drag to surge up to 50 percent higher than during prior launches” on the current Starlink deployment. This insured that as many as 40 of the 49 satellites would succumb to the forces of gravity and die as a result of the collision.
According to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who also catalogues and tracks artificial space objects, there are currently a total of 1,915 Starlink satellites in orbit, so a loss of up to 40 satellites “is not a big deal from their point of view.”
When you include in the cost of the launch, however, Dr. Lewis estimates that “it probably accounts for up to $100 million in hardware,” according to him.
Observers in low-Earth orbit are well aware of the threats that solar outbursts and geomagnetic storms bring, ranging from electrical damage to communications outages. Geomagnetic storms are classified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on a scale ranging from moderate to severe. The newest storm, which the government describes as “moderate,” is acknowledged by the agency as potentially creating changes in air drag that might cause orbits to shift.
Upon being reached via email, a spokesperson for SpaceX said that no one was available to address questions due to “the tremendously stressful time of year for the crew.”
The fact that these satellites seem to be exiting the atmosphere swiftly, rather than remaining in low-Earth orbit, is a positive development. On top of that, they pose no danger to anybody on the ground. In terms of safety, Dr. Lewis said that the system “performed just as it was intended to.” “The satellites were de-orbited, and nothing else was placed at danger,” says the spokesperson.
The vast majority of satellites orbit at greater altitudes, allowing them to escape the dangers presented by the expansion of the atmosphere. However, the danger to satellites flying at lower altitudes is far from ended, which raises the issue of whether SpaceX will be able to continue delivering spacecraft at such low altitudes in the future.
The sun produces an increasing quantity of intense ultraviolet radiation as it becomes more active, according to Dr. Lewis, which is absorbed by our atmosphere as the sun becomes more active. It is expected that the atmosphere would expand dramatically, with “the atmospheric density increasing by one or two orders of magnitude,” according to the scientists. That is a significant shift in comparison to what we’ve just seen with this specific occurrence.”
In the past, several astronomers expressed concern about Starlink and other satellite constellations, which they believe could reflect sunlight and perhaps interfere with telescope studies on Earth. Furthermore, others believe that this episode is representative of SpaceX’s approach regarding difficulties that arise in low-Earth orbit.