(RoyalPatriot.com )- In the last three years, as part of its business to beam high-speed internet service from space, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has deployed thousands of satellites into low-Earth orbit. But the most recent deployment of 49 satellites didn’t go according to plan.
As many as 40 of those 49 satellites were knocked out of commission as a consequence of a geomagnetic storm triggered by a recent outburst of the sun. Those 40 satellites are now in the process of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere where they will be incinerated.
In a company blog post on Tuesday night, SpaceX announced the news. The company said after the launch, the satellites were released at their intended orbit approximately 130 miles above the earth. This altitude was chosen in part to prevent potential future collisions with other satellites.
According to SpaceX, during the deployment of its 49 Starlink satellites, the storm’s escalation and severity “caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50 percent higher than during previous launches” which ensured that up to 40 of the 49 satellites would be pulled into the earth’s gravitational field and burn up.
Currently, SpaceX has a total of 1,915 Starlink satellites in orbit, so losing 40 isn’t much of a big deal. But the incident does highlight the hazards faced by companies planning to deploy tens of thousands of small satellites into orbit to provide internet service from space. It is possible more solar outbursts like the one last week will knock some of these satellites out of orbit.
The sun oscillates between hyperactive and quiescent states in 11-year cycles. Presently, the cycle is reaching its peak which is forecast to arrive around 2025.
Last week’s solar event was moderate. But according to Hugh Lewis, a space debris expert with the University of Southampton, there will be an extreme event in the next cycle “because that typically is what happens during a solar maximum.”
If a small outburst can take out 40 satellites at low orbital altitudes, a more extreme event could potentially inflict far greater harm to SpaceX and other companies’ “mega-constellations.”