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Solar storm knocks out 40 newly launched SpaceX satellites -Breaking


© Reuters. FILEPHOTO: SpaceX Starlink 5, satellites, are seen as they appear in the sky from Svendborg (South Funen), Denmark on April 21, 2020. Ritzau Scanpix/Mads Claus Rasmussen via REUTERS

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters] – A geomagnetic thunderstorm triggered by a strong burst radiation from the sun caused at least 40 of 49 satellites to be disabled by SpaceX, which was launching them as part of Starlink’s internet communication network.

This incident, which was thought to be the most severe collective loss in satellites due to a single geomagnetic storm, was described by Jonathan McDowell (Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysicist), on Wednesday.

On Tuesday’s website, the company announced that satellites had been lost last Friday (February 4th), just a day after being launched into a low-deployment orbit around 130 miles (210km) above Earth.

SpaceX stated that it deploys satellites to low orbits in order to allow them to return to Earth quickly. If a problem is discovered during system checks, SpaceX will also allow the satellites to burn on their return.

SpaceX did not say whether it had expected the severe space weather conditions that it was facing, which were fueled by the solar storm just days before it launched its 49th satellite.


A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Thursday. It coincided roughly with a U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center geomagnetic storm watch posted last Wednesday and Thursday.

Alert advising that solar flare activity from “full-halo coronal Mass ejection”, a massive blast of solar plasma from the surface and electromagnetic radiation, was being detected Jan. 29 and could reach Earth by February 1.

According to the alert, geomagnetic storms on Earth could continue into February 3rd “at weakening” levels.

SpaceX says that because of the severity and speed of the storm, atmospheric density was significantly increased at low-orbit altitudes. This created intense friction or drag, which resulted in the loss of at least 40 satellites.

Starlink operators attempted to get the satellites in a “safe mode” orbital configuration to allow them to glide edge-on, but these efforts were unsuccessful for most satellites. SpaceX reported that they had to be reentried at lower atmospheric levels.

McDowell stated to Reuters that “this is unheard of.” According to McDowell, it was the most severe loss of satellites in a solar storm. It also marks the first mass satellite disaster caused by increased atmospheric density.

McDowell stated that McDowell was concerned about whether or not the increased orbital drag from the storm exceeded design limits. SpaceX may also have incorrectly believed the satellites were capable of handling such high density.

McDowell stated that SpaceX didn’t expect to be required to deal with that density. This would make it sound like SpaceX wasn’t paying close attention to space weather reports.

SpaceX didn’t immediately respond to Reuters queries for further information.

McDowell said that the sun’s 11-year sunspot cycle will see the sun reach its “solar maximum”, which McDowell predicts, causing geomagnetic thunderstorm activity to increase over the coming years.

SpaceX is a rocket company based in Los Angeles that Musk founded. It has successfully launched many small satellites to orbit as part of Starlink, his service for broadband Internet. Musk stated in a tweet on Jan. 15 that there were 1,469 active satellites with 272 being moved to orbit.

According to the company, it envisions an array of approximately 30,000 satellites in its final constellation. This is an increase from the 12,000 originally planned.