The magnetic storm that damaged 40 satellites

Everyone is launching satellites into space today. Among them, one of the most involved is Elon Musk. A few days ago there was an in-orbit deployment of a batch of 49 satellites. They belong to Space X’s Starlink constellation. It was successfully launched on February 3, but there was a strong and unexpected setback. What? The magnetic storm that damaged 40 satellites.

The magnetic storm that damaged 40 satellites was unexpected.
The magnetic storm that damaged 40 satellites was unexpected.

Unable to ascend

As reported by Elon Musk’s companythe damage was massive. These storms heat the atmosphere by increasing atmospheric density. Atmospheric drag increased by as much as 50 percent more than during previous launches. This complicated the planned deployment.

The storm was detected on February 4. How did the Starlink team respond? It ordered the satellites to enter a safe mode in which they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper). That way they minimized drag, to “protect themselves from the storm”. They worked closely with the U.S. Space Force and LeoLabs. Continuous updates were made to the satellites based on ground-based radars.

The satellites would be sputtered on their return to Earth.
Satellites will be pulverized on their return to Earth.

Safe return

what results did a preliminary Starlink analysis provide? It turns out that increased drag at low altitudes prevented them from continuing to ascend. “The satellites were unable to leave the safe mode. They did not begin orbit raising maneuvers. Many of the satellites will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.”

The magnetic storm that damaged 40 satellites will not generate additional danger, happily. These satellites leaving orbit present zero risk of collision with other satellites. Moreover, by design, they disappear upon re-entering the atmosphere. No orbital debris is created and no part of the satellite hits the ground. Of course, Elon Musk must not like the idea of losing 40 satellites.

Until the next attempt, Starlink. Nature and space permitting, we’ll continue to watch the atmosphere fill up with satellites.

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