Solar storm disables 40 newly launched SpaceX satellites


SpaceX Starlink 5 satellites are pictured in the sky seen from Svendborg on South Funen, Denmark April 21, 2020. Ritzau Scanpix/Mads Claus Rasmussen via REUTERS

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LOS ANGELES, Feb 9 (Reuters) – A geomagnetic storm triggered by a large burst of solar radiation has disabled at least 40 of SpaceX’s 49 newly launched satellites as part of its Starlink internet communications network, the company said.

The announcement, posted on the company’s website on Tuesday, says the satellites were struck last Friday, February 4, a day after they were launched into a preliminary “low-deployment” orbit about 130 miles (210 km) away. above the Earth.

The launch of the satellites, carried aloft by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, roughly coincided with a geomagnetic storm watch released last Wednesday and Thursday, February 2-3 by the US Space Weather Prediction Center.

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The alert warned that solar flare activity from a “full halo coronal mass ejection” – a large explosion of solar plasma and electromagnetic radiation from the surface of the sun – was detected on January 29 and was likely to reach Earth as early as February 1. .

The alert also said the resulting geomagnetic storm conditions on Earth were “likely to persist” through February 3 “at weakening levels.”

According to SpaceX, the speed and gravity of the solar storm warmed Earth’s atmosphere, increasing atmospheric density at the satellites’ low-orbit altitude, essentially creating intense friction or drag that knocked out at least 40 of the satellites. .

Starlink operators tried to order the satellites into a “safe mode” orbital configuration allowing them to fly abreast to minimize drag, but these efforts failed for most of the satellites, forcing them to descend into the atmosphere where they burned safely. reentry above Earth, according to SpaceX.

“As far as I know, this is unprecedented,” Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Reuters in an email, saying it was the first time he was aware of the satellite outages caused by an increase in atmospheric density due to a solar storm, rather by higher electromagnetic radiation itself.

SpaceX, the Los Angeles-based rocket company founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, has launched hundreds of small satellites into orbit since 2019 as part of Musk’s Starlink service for high-speed internet. The company eventually envisions a constellation of around 12,000 satellites in total.

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Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by David Gregorio

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