Space weather is as important as atmospheric weather to satellites; recently, 40 Starlink satellites paid the price.
In a statement spotted by The Verge, SpaceX announced that it received bad news; the firm conceded that it expected to lose 40 of the 49 Starlink satellites that had just been launched on February 3. In question: the weather of the magnetic field in the vicinity of the Earth, which recently turned into a storm.
During the take-off in February, everything started well. The Falcon 9 rocket took off without incident, stabilized correctly in orbit, and was able to deposit all the satellites on the expected trajectory. But along the way, they were caught in a magnetic storm of great violence. In essence, it is a jolt of our star that corresponds to a peak in solar activity. The particles thus ejected collide with the Earth’s magnetic field, which then begins to fluctuate suddenly and intensely. An interaction that has various and varied consequences, such as the appearance of the aurora. But some other resulting phenomena are much less aesthetic and much more disabling for SpaceX.
Mowed down in flight by the sun
“These storms heat the atmosphere and increase atmospheric density at our deployment altitude”, can we read in the press release. However, the greater the density of the atmosphere, the more resistance it opposes – atmospheric drag – to the satellites that try to cross it. This increase in density, even minimal, therefore results in a significant loss of speed… which tends to invalidate all trajectory calculations.
“In this specific case, the onboard GPS suggests that the severity of the storm caused a 50% increase in atmospheric drag compared to previous launches.”, explains the press release. SpaceX operators tried to fly them on edge to make them as aerodynamic as possible, but that wasn’t enough: 40 of them lost too much speed to hope to stabilize in a higher orbit. So they go finish the race burning entirely in the atmosphere during the descent.
A daring communication pirouette
At least, we can be satisfied with the fact that these 40 satellites will therefore not pollute the vicinity of the Earth. But, funny detail, we can’t help but smile when we notice that SpaceX takes the opportunity to offer itself a somewhat daring communication pirouette. Indeed, the end of the message almost presents this accident as a test of sustainable spatial development. We can read there that this episode “demonstrates” the “considerable effort“agreed by SpaceX to propose a system”at the forefront of space pollution control technology”…. a point on which the Starlink constellations are, it should be remembered, regularly singled out.
Let’s just hope that the 2nd generation of Starlink satellites, due to arrive shortly after the Raptor engine enters service, will be better equipped to withstand the onslaught of the Sun. Because otherwise, other units will inevitably end up bearing the brunt of it… and therefore turning into fireworks costing tens of millions of dollars.