49 “Starlink” satellites encountered a geomagnetic storm, and 40 were damaged the day after launch

SpaceX said that as many as 40 of the 49 “Starlink” satellites it launched on the 3rd of this month were damaged the next day due to a geomagnetic storm. This is believed to be the largest damage to a satellite caused by a single geomagnetic storm.

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【Rescue failed】

The official website of SpaceX released an update on the 8th saying that the company routinely launched 49 “Starlink” satellites to an orbit lower than the predetermined orbital altitude on the 3rd, and prepared to conduct preliminary testing on these satellites. into a predetermined orbit 210 kilometers above the ground.

“Unfortunately”, SpaceX said, a geomagnetic storm that occurred on the 4th severely affected the satellites, warming the atmosphere in the area where the satellites are located, increasing density and increasing atmospheric drag by up to 50 percent from previous launch levels .

The “Starlink” team then controlled the satellite to enter a safe flight mode, allowing the satellite to fly “sideways” to reduce atmospheric drag. However, most satellites have never been able to return to normal mode once they have gone into safe mode, so “up to 40 satellites will re-enter or have re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.”

SpaceX said the risk of a deorbiting satellite colliding with other satellites is “zero” and will burn up after re-entry, leaving no debris left in space or debris falling to the ground.

【Ignore the warning? 】

According to Reuters, before the launch of these “Starlink” satellites, the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center had predicted a possible geomagnetic storm. The center previously warned that a strong solar flare was detected on January 29, and the ejected material and energy may reach Earth as early as February 1, and the geomagnetic storm caused by it may last until February 3.

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Flares are events in which a localized region of the Sun’s atmosphere suddenly brightens, accompanied by strongly enhanced electromagnetic radiation, solar proton events (large streams of high-energy charged particles), and coronal mass ejections. After the material and energy of these active jets reach the near-Earth space, they will strongly disturb the Earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere and upper atmosphere, causing geomagnetic storms.

Jonathan McDowell, an expert at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, believes that the damage caused by the geomagnetic storm to the satellite this time is the largest single-scale damage, and it is also the first time that the increase in atmospheric density has caused large-scale damage to the satellite.

McDowell said it was unclear whether the increase in atmospheric drag caused by geomagnetic storms exceeded the limits of what the satellite was designed to withstand, or whether SpaceX mistakenly believed that the satellite could withstand such drag. He said that from what SpaceX said, they didn’t expect to have to deal with such atmospheric drag, “as if they didn’t pay attention to space weather forecasts.”

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CNN quoted Bill Murta, program coordinator at the Center for Space Weather Prediction, as saying that people in charge of satellite launches usually pay close attention to space weather before launch, but different companies judge whether space weather affects the criteria for launching. different.

SpaceX has yet to respond to media inquiries about the company’s assessment of space weather prior to launch.

【Loss unknown】

The economic damage caused by the incident is unclear. SpaceX has not disclosed the cost of Starlink satellites. According to CNN, company president Gwen Shotwell said in 2019 that each satellite would cost well under $1 million.

According to Reuters, the “Starlink” project previously planned to launch 12,000 low-altitude orbit satellites into space between 2019 and 2024 to build a network to provide Internet services, and then increased the planned number to about 30,000.

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, posted on social media on January 15 that the “Starlink” project has nearly 1,500 satellites in operation, and another 272 satellites are on their way to predetermined orbits.

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Before the “Starlink” satellite reaches the predetermined orbit, it will undergo preliminary testing at a lower altitude. If there is a problem, it will re-enter the earth’s atmosphere under the operation of ground controllers and burn up in the process, so as not to interfere with other satellites. SpaceX said it’s rare for a satellite to reveal problems at this stage, and the step was arranged just in case.