SpaceX loses batch of Starlink LEO satellites to geomagnetic storm

Starlink, the SpaceX satellite broadband company, lost a batch of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites deployed last week after they were impacted by a geomagnetic storm.

Starlink launched 49 satellites on Thursday, February 3, into their intended orbit, but up to 40 of those will or already have reentered the Earth’s atmosphere after being heavily impacted by a solar storm last Friday, according to a SpaceX update.

SpaceX explained that “these storms cause the atmosphere to warm and atmospheric density at our low deployment altitudes to increase.” GPS onboard the satellites indicate the ramp in speed and storm severity resulted in atmospheric drag to jump up to 50% higher than in previous launches.

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“The Starlink team commanded the satellites into a safe-mode where they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper) to minimize drag—to effectively ‘take cover from the storm’—and continued to work closely with the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron and LeoLabs to provide updates on the satellites based on ground radars,” SpaceX continued.

However, with greater drag at the low altitudes, the company said satellites weren’t able to leave safe-mode to start orbit raising maneuvers – leading the previously mentioned batch of LEO satellites to reenter the atmosphere.

On the plus side, SpaceX said the deorbiting satellites don’t pose any collision risk with other satellites and are designed to disintegrate upon reentry “meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts in the ground.”

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SpaceX said the situation highlights the lengths Starlink has gone to ensure the system is on the leading edge of on-orbit debris mitigation. It didn't disclose what the loss means financially, but according to CNBC, losing the majority of the satellites launched in the latest mission could be a financial toll of more than $50 million. 

The latest Starlink update comes shortly after the Elon Musk-backed satellite broadband venture teased a new tier of service, dubbed Starlink Premium. It touts faster speeds and improved throughput, but comes with pricey $500 per month bill for service - on top of a one-time $2,500 hardware fee for equipment. Signups are active now, with deliveries expected to start in the second quarter.  

One of Starlink’s aims is to connect people in remote and hard to reach places around the globe. Its basic broadband service tier costs $99 per month.