Virtually all of the Starlink internet satellites that a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried beyond the atmosphere on February 3 will not reach their intended orbit.
SpaceX has revealed that a geomagnetic storm that took place a day after liftoff severely impacted the satellites, and up to 40 of them will re-enter or have already re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. The United States Geological Survey describes geomagnetic storms as periods of “rapid magnetic field variation” usually caused by a strong surge of solar winds.
These storms can damage electronics and orbiting satellites. In this particular case, it warmed the atmosphere and caused atmospheric drag – or the friction acting against the motion of the satellites – up to 50% more than previous launches.
SpaceX said its Starlink team tried to save the newly deployed satellites by putting them into safe mode, which adjusts their motion so they fly like a sheet of paper, to minimize drag. Unfortunately, the increased drag prevented satellites from exiting safe mode.
De-orbited satellites pose no collision risk, SpaceX said, will burn up completely when they re-enter the atmosphere, and create no orbital debris. No part of the satellite should touch the ground. “This unique situation demonstrates the tremendous efforts the Starlink team is making to ensure the system is at the forefront of in-orbit debris mitigation,” the company wrote in its announcement.
SpaceX launched more than 2,000 Starlink satellites in January this year for its first-generation constellation. Launches with Starlink satellites as payloads have become routine for the company, and they will become even more common if it gains approval to form a second constellation with up to 30,000 satellites to provide global internet coverage.
While Starlink could provide internet connection even to people in remote locations, astronomers said megaconstellations have become a worse threat to their studies than urban light pollution. In fact, the International Astronomical Union has just created the Center for the Protection of Dark and Calm Skies from Satellite Constellation Interference.
Since the main problem is that telescopes will pick up light reflected from these constellations of satellites, making it difficult to observe the rest of the universe, the center will focus on software solutions and mitigation techniques that observatories can implement. SpaceX added “umbrellas” to its Starlink satellites in 2020 to make them less bright. According to Sky & Telescope, they seem fainter now, but they are still visible to telescopes.