CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX’s newest fleet of satellites is tumbling out of orbit after being struck by a solar storm.
What You Need To Know
- A solar storm has caused dozens of Starlink satellites to drop from orbit, SpaceX said
- About 40 of the 49 launched last week have burned up upon reentry into the atmosphere, or are about it
- The geomagnetic storm increased atmospheric drag on the satellites, SpaceX officials said
- Almost 2,000 Starlink satellites are still orbiting Earth
Up to 40 of the 49 small satellites launched last week have either reentered the atmosphere and burned up, or are on the verge of doing so, the company said in an online update Tuesday night.
SpaceX said a geomagnetic storm last Friday made the atmosphere denser, which increased the drag on the Starlink satellites, effectively dooming them.
Ground controllers tried to save the compact, flat-panel satellites by putting them into a type of hibernation and flying them in a way to minimize drag. But the atmospheric pull was too great, and the satellites failed to awaken and climb to a higher, more stable orbit, according to the company.
SpaceX still has close to 2,000 Starlink satellites orbiting Earth that are providing internet service to remote corners of the world. They circle the globe more than 340 miles (550 kilometers) up.
The satellites hit by the solar storm were in a temporary position. SpaceX officials said they are deliberately launched into this unusually low orbit so that any duds can quickly reenter the atmosphere so they won't pose a threat to other spacecraft.
There is no danger from these newly falling satellites, either in orbit or on the ground, according to the company.
Each satellite weighs less than 575 pounds (260 kilograms).
SpaceX described the lost satellites as a “unique situation." Experts say the type of geomagnetic storm that hit the satellites can be caused by intense solar activity, like sun flares, which can send streams of plasma from the sun's corona hurtling out into space and toward Earth.
Since launching the first Starlink satellites in 2019, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said he envisions a constellation of thousands more to increase internet service.
Company officials say SpaceX is trying to help restore internet service to Tonga through this network following the devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami.
London-based OneWeb has its own internet satellites in orbit, and Amazon plans to start launching its satellites later this year.
Astronomers are worried that these mega constellations will ruin nighttime observations from Earth. The International Astronomical Union is forming a new center for the protection of dark skies.