A geomagnetic storm triggered by a large burst of radiation from the sun has disabled least 40 of the 49 satellites newly launched by SpaceX as part of its Starlink internet communications network, the company said.
The incident was believed to mark the largest collective loss of satellites stemming from a single geomagnetic event, and was unique in the way it unfolded, Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said on Wednesday.
The company’s announcement, posted on its website on Tuesday, said the satellites were stricken last Friday, a day after they were launched to a preliminary “low-deployment” orbit about 130 miles (210 km) above Earth.
SpaceX said it routinely deploys its satellites to such low orbits at first so they can quickly and safely be allowed to fall back toward Earth and incinerate on re-entry if a malfunction is detected during initial system checkouts.
But SpaceX left unclear whether the company had anticipated the severity of the extreme space weather conditions it faced, fueled by a solar storm days earlier, when it sent its latest batch of 49 satellites aloft.
Space-Weather Alert before Launch
The Thursday launch by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket flown from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida roughly coincided with a “geomagnetic storm watch” posted for last Wednesday and Thursday, February 2-3, by the US Space Weather Prediction Center.
The alert warned that solar flare activity from a “full halo coronal mass ejection” - a large blast of solar plasma and electromagnetic radiation from the sun’s surface - was detected on January 29, and was likely to reach Earth as early as Feb. 1. The alert also said resulting geomagnetic storm conditions on Earth were “likely to persist” into February 3 “at weakening levels.”
According to SpaceX, the speed and severity of the solar storm drastically increased atmospheric density at the satellites’ low-orbit altitude, creating intense friction or drag that knocked out at least 40 of them.