By Karl Andrei Luarez

PHOTO: Ritzau Scanpix/Mads Claus Rasmussen via REUTERS

After thousands of speculation on social media, SpaceX finally confirmed on February 8th that a day after the Falcon 9 rocket dispatched their latest batch of Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit on Thursday, February 3, 2022, a geomagnetic storm knocked out an estimated 40 out of 49 satellites, veering them inoperable and into the Earth’s atmosphere.

According to SpaceX, the Falcon 9 rocket successfully delivered the satellites into their designated orbit, which is 210 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, each achieving controlled flight. The company clarified that their satellites operate at low altitudes so that if a satellite does not pass the initial systems checkout stage, it will be immediately deorbited by atmospheric drag, opting for a more sustainable space environment. Their approach, on the other hand, made their satellites very susceptible to elevated atmospheric drag, which is what happened on Friday after a geomagnetic storm struck.

After noticing the storm, the Starlink team commanded the satellites to enter “safe-mode” to minimize atmospheric drag and “take cover from the storm.” However, preliminary analysis shows 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 re-enter or have already re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, SpaceX wrote in an update.

Although the Earth’s magnetic field serves as a protective barrier from harmful rays of radiation from solar storms, the heat released by these coronal mass ejections causes the atmosphere to heat up and expand, and atmospheric drag to increase, posing a great threat to spacecraft in orbit. The geomagnetic storm that impacted Starlink satellites was so severe that it increased atmospheric drag by up to 50%.

Several warnings for impulses of coronal mass ejections have been posted since February 1. On February 3, the day of the launch, the US weather agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization (NOAA), issued a Kp-5 warning, noting minor impacts on satellite operations were possible. 

The satellites expected to enter the atmosphere do not pose a substantial threat of impact with Earth’s surface since they would burn up upon re-entry. “This demonstrates the great lengths the Starlink team has gone to ensure the system is on the leading edge of on-orbit debris mitigation,” SpaceX claimed.

Situations like geomagnetic storms will still be a threat to satellites in the future, especially since we are entering Solar Cycle 25, a period of rising solar activity; Studies and tracking of phenomena concerning space weather would decrease the likelihood of events like these happening.

After such a catastrophic event, SpaceX’s Starlink will still continue to pursue its vision: of covering the world with up to 30,000 satellites and providing high-speed internet globally, even in rural areas.

Edited by Audrei Jeremy A. Mendador