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Thu, Feb 10, 2022

SpaceX Sees Loss of 40 Starlink Satellites

Initial Deployment Phase Hampered by Storm, Units Prevented from Achieving Higher Orbit Before Succumbing to Gravity

A costly lesson in space weather has been learned by SpaceX after its recent Falcon 9 launch carrying 49 Starlink Satellites into low Earth orbit encountered a geomagnetic storm soon after deployment.

The resulting damage resulted in the loss of the majority of the units, with only 9 likely to make their way into position unscathed. While the damage to the SpaceX bottom line is unfortunate, reports of visible reentry have begun filtering in, giving astronomers a rare show as they watch the satellites disintegrate.

The launch took place on February 3 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, successfully deploying the second stage while placing the satellites about 130 miles up in orbit for initial checks and activation. When activating the satellites in low orbit, SpaceX plans for those that fail testing to be deorbited and destroyed by atmospheric drag, keeping the amount of abandoned orbital debris low.

Unfortunately, the satellites were impacted by the storm which increased atmospheric density and warmed the region rapidly, increasing drag on them by 50% over previous launches. Trying to mitigate the effects of the increased drag, SpaceX commanded them to minimize their profile in the wind, placing their edges into the wind. 

Ultimately, the storm remained too strong and its effects too great, preventing the satellites from activating to begin orbit raising maneuvers. Initial estimates expect that 40 of them will or already have reentered Earth's atmosphere, deorbiting into earth's gravity. As they descend, they will burn up with no resulting debris or problems caused to operators or lives below.

The lesson has been a costly one for the company, as some say the cost of replacing the Starlink satellites will run them around $10 million.

Their current constellation contains around 1,900 functioning satellites to provide internet service throughout its coverage, a small fraction of its desired megaconstellation of 42,000. 

FMI: www.SpaceX.com

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