In what one might call a ‘fiber cut’ in space analogy, satellite broadband provider Starlink lost 40 of 49 satellites it recently launched to a geomagnetic storm. The satellites were launched on February 3rd from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
According to a SpaceX report, the 40 satellites are a total loss and will fall back to Earth, burning up upon reentry. SpaceX says it purposely puts its satellites in a lower orbit to do initial system checks. If deployed satellites fail these initial checks, they can be easily ‘deorbited’ through atmospheric drag.
These satellites were the victim of a geomagnetic storm, which apparently causes the atmosphere to warm up and increase atmospheric density. That combination creates drag impacting the ability for Starlink LEO satellites to reach their proper orbit.
It sounds like ‘rocket scientist’ chatter, but ultimately it means Starlink lost over 80% of the 49 satellites launched last week. SpaceX says the deorbited satellites pose no collision risk and should completely dissolve upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.
“The deorbiting satellites pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric reentry—meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts hit the ground,” SpaceX writes in the company update.
That may be debatable, considering SpaceX has taken a lot of heat for the implications of eventually placing 30K satellites in orbit to blanket the Earth with satellite broadband coverage. The company has placed about 2K in orbit so far.
Critics have warned about the possible increase in space junk that could come from Starlink and about the potential negative impact that large satellite constellation will have for astronomers who like to peek into space regularly.
SpaceX could have other problems from its space ‘fiber cut.’ According to a recent report from Wall Street analysts at MoffetNathanson, SpaceX can ill afford to lose any satellites.
That analysis suggests that in order for SpaceX to reach its long-term goals for Starlink, the company would have to launch satellites “every four to five days for the next decade, and a new launch for satellite replacement, even at steady-state, every five days…”