Geomagnetic storm sends dozens of Starlink satellites back to Earth, SpaceX says

Up to 40 units launched Thursday will reenter atmosphere, SpaceX says

Still from an animated rendering of SpaceX Starlink satellites in deployment, courtesy of SpaceX on Instagram May 24, 2019. (SpaceX)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The same atmospheric phenomena we have to thank for the famous aurora borealis has also sealed the fate of dozens of recently deployed Starlink internet satellites, according to SpaceX.

The company said Tuesday up to 40 of the 49 Starlink satellites launched Thursday from Kennedy Space Center either already have or will reenter the Earth’s atmosphere following disruptive impacts from a geomagnetic storm.

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According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, geomagnetic storms occur when solar winds enter the space environment near Earth, bringing with them a magnetic field embedded in around a billion tons of plasma ejected from the sun. When the solar wind reaches the Earth’s magnetosphere, the exchange in energy can increase the density of the atmosphere and create additional drag on satellites in low-Earth orbit, disrupting navigational systems.

GPS data from the hampered satellites suggested drag increased up to 50% higher during the storm than during previous launches, SpaceX said. The satellites were angled to fly with a low profile, what the company described as “like a piece of paper,” in order to cut through the drag and “take cover” from the space weather event, according to a news release.

Ultimately, the batch of satellites was unable to begin orbit-raising maneuvers in time, and up to 40 of them will return to the Earth’s atmosphere, the release said. The company said the falling Starlink units are designed to burn upon reentry and will not collide with any other satellites, will create no orbital debris and will not reach the ground.

The storm that hit the batch of satellites was forecast to be a moderate one, labeled a G2 storm by NOAA, that have an average frequency of occurring more than 600 times every year.

About the Author:

Brandon, a UCF grad, joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021. Before joining News 6, Brandon worked at WDBO.