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Geomagnetic Storm May Cost SpaceX 50 Starlink Satellites09.02.2022

The deorbiting spacecraft will not pose any collision danger to other artificial objects in space.

Starlink, the communication platform built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has been in consistent development since its public announcement in 2015. Three years later, the first Starlink satellites, expected to provide satellite coverage around the globe, were placed in low Earth orbit. To date, actual Starlink service is delivered in several dozen countries, including Poland, where a test version of the platform was launched last September. The US company maintains that it’s capable of providing competitive transfer speeds, reaching up to 200 MB/s.

The latest batch of forty-nine Starlink satellites left Earth last Thursday, February 3. Launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida’s Cape Canaveral, the mission unfortunately ran into unforeseen events—the unmanned spacecraft were severely affected by a violent geomagnetic storm. Simply put, a geomagnetic storm involves rapid changes in the magnetosphere prompted by the ejection of plasma clouds on the Sun. The phenomenon can cause radical shifts in space weather and threaten objects traveling through space. To Earth itself, a geomagnetic storm poses little danger on account of our well-developed solar flare warning systems, which allow power companies to mitigate the potentially adverse effects of these events.

Last week’s geomagnetic storm, however, warmed up the atmosphere and increased its density at lower altitudes, which ended up causing atmospheric drag to increase up to 50 percent. Although the satellites were quickly put into safe mode, causing them to fly edge on like a sheet of paper, it quickly became apparent that 80% of the craft (ca. 40) would not reach low Earth orbit, meaning that they would be reentering Earth’s atmosphere.

Starlink’s official statement assures that the deorbiting satellites pose no collision risk to other artificial objects traversing the skies. Such an explicit declaration might be read as a response to the many allegations leveled against the US company throughout last year. Furthermore, nearly two months ago, the Chinese government lodged an official note with the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, in which officials argued that the Elon Musk company was engaging in irresponsible and unsafe conduct in outer space. 


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