Up to 40 SpaceX satellites to fall out of orbit after geomagnetic storm

Science News

In this time-exposure photograph, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the 25th batch of approximately 60 satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network lifts off from the Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., late Wednesday, April 28, 2021. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

(NEXSTAR) – SpaceX expects as many as 40 recently-launched satellites will reenter Earth’s atmosphere, if they haven’t yet, after a geomagnetic storm caused many of them to “take cover” last week.

The company’s Falcon 9 rocket launched 49 Starlink satellites into low orbit on Thursday, Feb. 3 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. According to SpaceX, the satellites were deployed into their intended orbit and each one achieved controlled flight.

The next day, though, a geomagnetic storm hit. During these storms, the atmospheric density where the satellites are deployed increased. With the rapid change in conditions, SpaceX’s Starlink team put the satellites into safe mode, helping them to “take cover from the storm.”

Unfortunately, SpaceX reports a preliminary analysis found the increased drag at the low altitudes where the satellites orbit prevented them from leaving their safe mode. Because of this, up to 40 of the satellites from the launch are expected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, if they haven’t already.

While it may seem daunting to think of satellites falling out of orbit and heading toward Earth, don’t expect to see any debris landing on your front lawn.

The company says the deorbiting satellites “pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric reentry.” This means no debris is created and parts won’t hit the ground, according to SpaceX.

Starlink satellites are designed to fly in low orbit and rely largely on drag. During their first of three phases of flight, orbit raise, the satellites “must minimize their cross-sectional area relative to the ‘wind,’ otherwise drag will cause them to fall out of orbit,” SpaceX explained in an April 2020 report.

If a satellite experiences problems, it quickly de-orbits and burns up in the atmosphere, preventing any “space junk.”

Space junk from SpaceX’s Falcon 9, a reusable rocket used to transport both people and payloads into Earth’s orbit, has caused concern recently.

One of its rocket boosters is on track to hit the far side of the moon on March 4.

This four-ton piece was part of a Falcon 9 rocket that launched from Florida in 2015. The rocket has spent the past seven years hurtling through space after running out of fuel, rendering it unable to return to Earth’s atmosphere.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said it has been a “chaotic” orbit for the rocket booster, as every time it gets near the moon, the moon’s gravity tugs it into a slightly different path.

But the moon itself will be fine, he added.

NewsNation Now contributed to this report.

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