Geomagnetic storm blamed for the loss of 40 Starlink satellites

Wednesday, 9 February 2022 15:22 UTC

Geomagnetic storm blamed for the loss of 40 Starlink satellites

Not a whole lot happening on the Sun today. Space weather is fairly quiet but we could see the passage of a minor coronal mass ejection within the next 24 hours which could stir up to minor G1 geomagnetic storm conditions according to the NOAA SWPC. But that is not the main space weather story of today. It is SpaceX which steals the headlines today. A geomagnetic storm is blamed by the company for the loss of 40 (out of 49) Starlink satellites launched last Thursday.

The company states that following launch, SpaceX deploys its satellites into a low orbit so that in the very rare case any satellite does not pass initial system checkouts it will quickly be deorbited by atmospheric drag.

However, these satellites were launched just before a geomagnetic storm commenced on Feb 4 which reached the minor G1 geomagnetic storm threshold. Geomagnetic storms temporarily warm up the thermosphere ever so slightly and this causes increased drag for satellites in low orbit. 

The company further states that the Starlink team commanded the satellites into a safe-mode where they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper) to minimize drag. Unfortunately it was later established that due to the increased drag up to 40 of the satellites could not leave safe-mode to begin orbit raising maneuvers. These satellites will reenter or already have reentered the Earth’s atmosphere. The good news is that according to SpaceX, the deorbiting satellites pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric reentry.

Another reminder that space weather is more important to keep an eye on than ever before as we are sending more satellites and humans into space!

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