Dr Tony Phillips of SpaceWeather.com reports that as many as 40 Starlink satellites are currently falling out of the sky–the surprising result of a minor geomagnetic storm.
On Thursday 3 February, Falcon 9 launched 49 Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit from launch complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. Unfortunately, the satellites deployed on Thursday were significantly impacted by a geomagnetic storm on Friday 4 February 2022.
Two days before launch, a CME hit Earth’s magnetic field. It was not a major space weather event. In fact, the weak impact did not at first spark any remarkable geomagnetic activity. However, as Earth passed through the CME’s wake, some sputtering G1-class geomagnetic storms developed. It was one of these minor storms that caught the Starlink satellites on 4 February.
Geomagnetic storms heat Earth’s upper atmosphere. Diaphanous tendrils of warming air literally reached up and grabbed the Starlink satellites. According to SpaceX, onboard GPS devices detected atmospheric drag increasing “up to 50 percent higher than during previous launches.”
“The Starlink team commanded the satellites into a safe mode where they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper) to minimise drag,” says SpaceX. “Preliminary analysis show the increased drag at the low altitudes prevented the satellites from leaving safe-mode to begin orbit raising manoeuvres, and up to 40 of the satellites will re-enter or already have re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.”
SpaceX says that the deorbiting satellites “pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric re-entry—meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts will hit the ground.”