A geomagnetic storm has finally damaged the launch of the latest Starlink satellite.
As SpaceX Report, at 13:13 ET on Thursday, February 3, a Falcon 9 rocket located at Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Center in Florida, was used to launch 49 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit. Low orbit (201 kilometers) was chosen so that SpaceX could perform an initial system check in case of problems, and if so, individual satellites could be quickly deorbited.
However, there was a geomagnetic storm occurring at the same time. This does not directly impact the satellite, but the storm warms the Earth’s atmosphere and therefore makes it denser. In this case the density of the atmosphere is 50% higher than the previous launch. To compensate, the satellites were ordered to fly, which SpaceX described as “like a piece of paper,” to minimize drag as much as possible. To do this, each satellite enters a pre-configured safe mode.
Unfortunately, 40 of the 49 satellites were unable to leave safe mode to move to a higher orbit and become part of the Starlink network. Instead, they would all now re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and be effectively lost. SpaceX said the satellites “posed no risk of collision” because they would burn up without leaving debris behind to fall back to Earth.
SpaceX pointed out that choosing to do this early low Earth orbit deployment required each satellite to be more capable and therefore much more expensive to manufacture. However, this hurricane-like situation shows why it’s worth spending extra money because it doesn’t produce debris.