On February 8 2022, SpaceX announced that Starlink group 4-7 low-orbit satellites, launched February 3, had been “significantly impacted” by a solar storm. The company estimated that up to 40 of the 49 units would be lost. It was the third Starlink launch of the year. The SpaceX statement cited the solar flare’s impact on atmospheric density, which increased drag for the satellites deployed at low altitude. Repositioning the satellites to counteract the increased drag only managed to salvage eleven of the 49 units launched.
SpaceX reported that the satellites had been placed “into their intended orbit” and that each satellite “achieved controlled flight” but that data from the units suggested atmospheric drag was “up to 50 percent higher” than Starlink satellites have navigated in prior launches. The company noted that early analysis indicated drag kept the majority of the launch batch in safe mode, preventing the usual “orbit raising maneuvers” from occurring.
This most recent launched batch of Starlink satellites also contained heavier units than previous versions, due to the addition of laser communication equipment designed for communications between satellites. Each of the newly launched satellites weighed around 650 lb. compared to the prior version, which totaled around 570 lb.
Both versions are small enough to easily incinerate when re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, which Starlink specifically designs them to do. This is part of Starlink’s overall strategy to prevent creation or accumulation of space debris or falling parts. Part of the initial Starlink project permission process included meeting NASA’s raised requirement of 90% of satellites being able to deorbit appropriately at the conclusion of a mission.
With dozens of units affected by the solar storm, Starlink collaborated with the U.S. Space Force and LeoLabs to track the satellites and confirm incineration. According to astronomer Jonathan McDowell, as of February 10, eleven satellites from the Starlink 4-7 batch had survived and were raising orbit; five satellites from the batch were confirmed to have deorbited to re-entry incineration, with one tracked and expected to incinerate; and the remaining satellites were assumed to have re-entered and incinerated before they could be tracked.
Prior to the launch of the Starlink satellites, the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center posted a “geomagnetic storm watch” around the launch date, though the solar storm severity was anticipated to decrease from G2 to G1 by launch day. The solar storm that downed the Starlink satellites was a relatively minor one. Space weather is impacted by the sun’s eleven-year solar cycle. After several years of low activity, the sun is entering its normal – if disruptive – phase of heightened activity.
Increased atmospheric drag is a problem unique to low altitude or low-orbit deployment, but SpaceX deliberately places Starlink satellites in low altitude so that any units potentially failing initial systems tests can be deorbited and incinerated quickly. With the upcoming increase in solar activity, specific low-orbit satellite deployment altitude may require further assessment or adjustment to preserve payloads of future Starlink launches.
Launches with the SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket typically cost around US $30 million. Earlier Starlink satellite versions were estimated to cost between US $250,000 and $500,000 each (before the addition of laser communication equipment to the updated version). The loss of nearly 40 satellites could total around US $20 million in asset loss. Active Starlink satellites are able to generate income for SpaceX by providing high-speed satellite internet coverage to Starlink subscribers, along with other applications and contracts.
SpaceX has launched over 2,000 Starlink satellites since 2018, with over 1,700 in orbit and active.
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