Forty of the 49 satellites launched last week by Elon Musk’s satellite internet company Starlink will be destroyed due to a geomagnetic storm, preventing them from reaching the desired final orbit.
The satellites, launched on 3 February aboard SpaceX Falcon 9 from the Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, initially reached a low Earth orbit.
From this initial orbit at a perigee of about 210km above Earth, the satellites achieved controlled flight, and after initial checks, they were expected to perform orbit-raising manoeuvres to reach their intended orbits, the company said.
But a geomagnetic storm on Friday caused “up to 50 per cent higher drag than during previous launches”, and prevented 40 of the deployed satellites from reaching their final intended orbit around the Earth.
“These storms cause the atmosphere to warm and atmospheric density at our low deployment altitudes to increase. In fact, onboard GPS suggests the escalation speed and severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50 percent higher than during previous launches,” SpaceX noted.
Even as the Starlink team commanded the satellites to enter into a safe mode where they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper) to minimise drag to “take cover from the storm”, preliminary analysis revealed that drag from the storm prevented the satellites from leaving safe-mode to begin orbit raising manoeuvres.