Solar Storm Knocks 40 SpaceX Satellites Out of Orbit

A solar outburst is increasing atmospheric drag and pulling the satellites back down to Earth

Image of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifting off in Florida with blue sky and trail of fire, onlookers in foreground
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off Feb. 3, 2022 carrying a batch of 49 Starlink satellites. SOPA Images via Getty Images

As part of SpaceX’s mission to provide high-speed internet from space, the company has put almost 2,000 Starlink satellites into low-earth orbit in recent years. But the latest launch on February 3 sent a batch of 49 satellites straight into a solar storm. At least 40 satellites have already been knocked out of commission, Robin George Andrews reports for the New York Times.

Solar storms happen when the sun emits bursts of charged particles, which interact with Earth's magnetic field. Where those energized particles contact the Earth’s upper atmosphere, it heats up and becomes denser.

“The atmosphere kind of puffs up, expands, as a result,” says Hugh Lewis, a space debris expert at the University of Southampton in England, to the Times.

The solar outbursts increased atmospheric drag by at least 50 percent, which is pulling the satellites back down to Earth shortly after launch, according to Miriam Kramer for Axios.

At least 40 of the compact, flat-panel satellites are now in the process of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, where they will be incinerated in a fiery explosion. One satellite was filmed burning up over Puerto Rico early Monday morning. 

After the launch, ground controllers tried to save the satellites from near-certain doom by putting them into a hibernation state and flying them in a way to minimize drag, per Marcia Dunn for the Associated Press. But the atmosphere was too thick, and the satellites couldn’t reach their higher, more stable orbit position.

“The Starlink team commanded the satellites into a safe-mode where they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper) to minimize drag—to effectively ‘take cover from the storm,’” the company says in a statement. “Preliminary analysis show the increased drag at the low altitudes prevented the satellites from leaving safe-mode to begin orbit raising maneuvers, and up to 40 of the satellites will reenter or already have reentered the Earth’s atmosphere.”

The failed satellites, which weigh around 575 pounds, won’t be a danger on Earth or in space, according to the company. 

"The de-orbiting satellites pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric reentry—meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts hit the ground," SpaceX said in a statement

As part of its internet “megaconstellation,” SpaceX has launched nearly 2,000 Starlink satellites and says it will eventually need as many as 42,000 satellites, according to CNN’s Jackie Wattles. 

The satellites orbit 340 miles above Earth, which is low enough to get pulled back down to Earth and not end up as space junk when they’re no longer operational. Why the company went forward with the launch despite the storm isn’t clear.

“It’s a bit of a surprise,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, to the Times. “They should have been ready for this, one would have thought.”

SpaceX is not alone in its quest to beam internet to remote places. London-based OneWeb and Amazon have plans to launch satellites in the coming years. The huge number of satellites entering Earth’s orbit is raising concerns that, if they fail, the objects will contribute to dangerous space debris. Others worry the illuminated satellites will pollute the darkness of the night sky.