Starlink to lose about 40 satellites in wake of geomagnetic storm

The Starlink deployment plan took a hit this week with word that the vast majority of 49 recently launched satellites will be lost due to the impact of a geomagnetic storm that took place on February 4. Those satellites, deployed on February 3, were "significantly impacted" by a geomagnetic storm the following day, SpaceX announced this week.

That batch of satellites was launched on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida:

'Safe mode' not enough to save satellites

The storms, SpaceX explained, caused the atmosphere to warm and atmospheric density at the low deployment altitudes of its Starlink satellites to increase. "In fact, onboard GPS suggests the escalation speed and severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50 percent higher than during previous launches," the company added.

As a result, Starlink commanded the satellites to enter a "safe-mode" to minimize drag and help the newly launched satellites take cover from the geomagnetic storm.

"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," Starlink said. "The deorbiting 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. This unique situation demonstrates the great lengths the Starlink team has gone to ensure the system is on the leading edge of on-orbit debris mitigation … While the low deployment altitude requires more capable satellites at a considerable cost to us, it's the right thing to do to maintain a sustainable space environment."

SpaceX and other satellite operators could be in harm's way for a while. With the sun in a new solar cycle, it's expected that geomagnetic storms could worsen in the coming years and pose additional risks to satellites, CNBC reported.

Setback further slows Starlink's deployment pace

While that's cause for concern for all companies operating low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, this most recent setback comes at a bad time for Starlink as it pushes ahead with an ambitious plan to deploy thousands of LEO satellites to deliver global broadband coverage.

MoffettNathanson has already expressed concerns that SpaceX will need to pick up the pace of satellite launches to stand a chance of fulfilling its vision as a global provider of broadband. A faster pace of deployment is needed not only to put up satellites that plug holes in coverage but also to launch replacements for previously deployed satellites that will eventually fall out of orbit and burn up in the Earth's atmosphere.

That analysis arrived after Elon Musk distributed a companywide email last November stating that a production crisis centered on the engine for the higher-capacity Starship launch vehicle puts SpaceX on a path to "genuine risk of bankruptcy if we cannot achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year."

The loss of the latest batch of Starlink satellites comes a few days after the company announced it was preparing to launch a new $500 per month "Premium" tier that could deliver speeds up to 500 Mbit/s.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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