Elon Musk’s Space X firm launched 49 Starlink satellites from a single rocket on February 3, but 38 of the satellites were destroyed the next day, costing tens of millions of dollars.
The satellites were launched into orbit at 210km of height before reaching a maximum altitude of 600km. However, 210km is a very low orbit for satellites, just scraping over the Earth’s upper atmosphere, yet it was utilized to detect any satellite malfunctions and, if required, take corrective action.
To begin with, the low-latency internet satellites were launched without issue. However, a wave of solar particles and radiation washed across the Earth at the same moment.
The wave, caused by a solar flare explosion on the sun’s surface, reached our planet, heating it and increasing the density of the air surrounding the satellites. The satellites were planned to ascend, but atmospheric drag prevented them from doing so.
According to a study conducted by American and Chinese experts, the drag rose by at least 60%.
“This event brings forth the urgent requirements of greater knowledge and precise prediction of space weather, as well as collaborations between industry and the space weather community,” scientists said of the February 3 incident.
Researchers also discovered that SpaceX would have suffered a financial loss of “several tens of millions of dollars” due to the solar storm. “We have illustrated the solar eruption, solar wind propagation, and atmospheric density enhancement, using both observed data and model simulations,” the study stated.
Fortunately, despite their collapse, the satellites presented no threat to anyone.
“The de-orbiting satellites pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric re-entry, meaning no orbital debris is created, and no satellite parts hit the ground,” SpaceX said.