February 8th from Cape Canaveral Florida
Thursday, February 3rd, at 1:13 PM Est SpaceX launched their latest batch of forty-nine Starlink satellites. From Launch Complex 39A these satellites were sent aboard a Falcon 9 rocket into low Earth orbit with a perigee of approximately 210 kilometers above Earth where each satellite achieved controlled flight.
It now appears these satellites were impacted by a geomagnetic storm the day after launch. A geomagnetic storm causes the atmosphere to warm and atmospheric density at lower altitudes to increase. Onboard GPS units suggest the escalation speed and severity of the storm cause atmospheric drag to increase up to about fifty percent higher than during previous launches. When this happened the Starlink team commanded the satellites to enter a safe mode where they would fly edge-on, meaning they would turn to be more streamlined in an effort to minimize drag.
Analysis showed that the increased drag at this lower altitude prevented the satellites from leaving their safe mode, which was needed to begin orbit raising maneuvers. SpaceX stated that up to forty of the total satellites will, or already have reentered Earth’s atmosphere. Those which will deorbit pose zero risk of collision with other satellites and by design burn up on atmospheric reentry. This means no orbital debris will be created and there is no risk of any satellite parts hitting the ground.
This unique situation does demonstrate the lengths the Starlink team has gone through to ensure the system is on the leading edge of on-orbit debris mitigation. In fact, this is why SpaceX deploys these satellites into lower orbits, so in the off chance any satellites don’t pass initial system checkouts they will be deorbited more quickly by atmospheric drag. It does raise the overall cost of the systems but as SpaceX states, it is the right thing to do in order to maintain a sustainable space environment.