Spacex's newest fleet of satellites is tumbling out of orbit after being struck by a solar storm. Up to 40 of the 49 small satellites launched last week have either reentered the atmosphere and burned up, or are on the verge of doing so. SpaceX said a geomagnetic storm made the atmosphere denser, which increased the drag on the Starlink satellites, effectively dooming them.

What

  1. Ground controllers tried to save the compact, flat-panel satellites by putting them into a type of hibernation and flying them in a way to minimise drag.
  2. But the atmospheric pull was too great, and the satellites failed to awaken and climb to a higher, more stable orbit.
  3. SpaceX still has close to 2,000 Starlink satellites orbiting Earth and providing internet service to remote corners of the world. They circle the globe more than 340 miles up (550 kilometers).
  4. The satellites hit by the solar storm were in a temporary position. SpaceX deliberately launches them into this unusually low orbit so that any duds can quickly reenter the atmosphere and pose no threat to other spacecraft.
  5. Since launching the first Starlink satellites in 2019, Elon Musk envisions a constellation of thousands more satellites to increase internet service.

What are solar storms/flares?

  1. Solar storms are magnetic plasma ejected at great speed from the solar surface.
  2. They occur during the release of magnetic energy associated with sunspots (‘dark’ regions on the Sun that are cooler than the surrounding photosphere), and can last for a few minutes or hours.
  3. The solar storm that deorbited the satellites occurred on 1 and 2 February 2022, and its powerful trails were observed on 3 February 2022.