A geomagnetic storm destroyed a batch of recently launched Starlink satellites

What just happened? Last week, SpaceX launched 49 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A day later, a geomagnetic storm disabled most of them. Some might call it a case of bad timing. Others may consider it karma.

SpaceX said it puts the satellites into a lower orbit so that on the rare occasion that something goes wrong, they will be knocked out of orbit by atmospheric drag. Last Friday’s storm warmed the atmosphere, resulting in a 50 percent increase in atmospheric drag compared to previous launches.

The Starlink team attempted to ride out the storm by putting the satellites into a safe mode in which they “flyed edge-on (like a piece of paper) to minimize drag.” However, the increased drag prevented most of the satellites from leaving safety and beginning orbit-raising maneuvers.

As a result, up to 40 satellites will either soon re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere or have already entered it.

SpaceX said de-orbiting satellites pose no danger to Earth’s inhabitants as they burn up completely upon re-entry into the atmosphere.

A team of researchers said last month that Starlink satellites are affecting ground-based astronomy and that the problem will only get worse over time. In 2019, Starlink satellites affected less than 0.5% of photos. By August 2021, nearly one in five verified photographs was contaminated by satellites.

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