As part of SpaceX’s mission to deliver high-speed internet from space, the company has put nearly 2,000 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit in recent years. But the latest launch on Feb. 3 sent a batch of 49 satellites straight into a solar storm. At least 40 satellites have already been taken out of service, reports Robin George Andrews for the New York Times.
Solar storms occur when the sun emits bursts of charged particles, which interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Where these energized particles come into contact with Earth’s upper atmosphere, it heats up and becomes denser.
“The atmosphere swells, expands, as a result,” says Hugh Lewis, a space debris expert at the University of Southampton in England, at Time.
According to Miriam Kramer for Axios.
At least 40 of the compact, flat-panel satellites are currently re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, where they will be incinerated in a fiery explosion. A satellite was filmed burning over Puerto Rico early Monday morning.
After launch, ground controllers tried to save the satellites from near-certain doom by putting them into a state of hibernation and flying them in a way that minimized drag, according to Marcia Dunn for The Associated Press. But the atmosphere was too thick and the satellites could not reach their higher and more stable orbital position.
“The Starlink team commanded the satellites into a safe mode where they would fly on edge (like a sheet of paper) to minimize drag – to ‘get out of the storm,'” the company said. in a press release. “Preliminary analysis shows that increased low-altitude drag has prevented satellites from exiting safe mode to begin orbit climb maneuvers, and up to 40 of the satellites will re-enter or have already re-entered the atmosphere earthly.”
The failed satellites, which weigh about 575 pounds, will not be a hazard on Earth or in space, the company says.
“Deorbiting satellites pose no risk of collision with other satellites and, by design, disappear upon re-entry into the atmosphere, which means no orbital debris is created and no parts of the satellite hits the ground,” SpaceX said in a statement.
As part of its Internet “megaconstellation,” SpaceX has launched nearly 2,000 Starlink satellites and says it will eventually need 42,000 satellites, according to CNN’s Jackie Wattles.
The satellites orbit 340 miles above Earth, which is low enough to be brought back to Earth and not end up as space junk when no longer operational. Why the company went ahead with the launch despite the storm is unclear.
“It’s a bit of a surprise,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, at Time. “They should have been ready for this, one would have thought.”
SpaceX isn’t alone in its quest to bring the internet to remote locations. London-based OneWeb and Amazon plan to launch satellites in the coming years. The large number of satellites entering Earth’s orbit raises concerns that if they fail, the objects could contribute to the formation of dangerous space debris. Others worry that illuminated satellites will pollute the darkness of the night sky.