Geomagnetic storm takes out 40 of 49 brand new Starlink satellites

SpaceX launched even though the space weatherman predicted tricky conditions could follow a solar flare


SpaceX last week launched 49 shiny new Starlink broadband-beaming satellites, which is good. But 40 of them have already, or will shortly, meet their demise due to a geomagnetic storm that struck a few days after their ascent. Which is bad.

All 49 satellites reached their planned 210km perigee deployment orbit, though the storm increased drag to levels up to 50 per cent higher than experienced on previous launches, according to a SpaceX update.

The Starlink team attempted to minimize the drag by putting the sats into safe mode, which would position them to fly edge-on. That plan didn't work because drag caused by the storm still buffeted the devices and meant they could not leave safe mode to raise their orbits. Gravity did its inexorable thing, causing the craft to meet an inglorious end in Earth's atmosphere.

SpaceX wrote that it uses lower orbits so that if the satellites don't initially pass system checks, de-orbit and reentry will occur without producing space junk.

But at those lower orbits, geomagnetic storms can be more damaging – causing warmer atmospheric conditions and higher densities that increase drag. The storms can also obscure the path of radio signals, create errors in positioning information, and disrupt navigation systems.

The Space Weather Prediction Center put a storm watch in place for the day of the launch as well as the day prior thanks to a flare emitted by a full halo coronal mass ejection – a release of plasma and accompanying magnetic fields from the Sun.

Had the Musk machines been successful, they would've joined Starlink's colossal satellite constellation selling internet service to Earth-dwellers.

In other space news, South Korea's ICT and Science Ministry announced Tuesday it will spend ₩12 billion ($10M) between now and 2023 to develop a high-performance liquid-fuel engine as part of a 2020 ₩49.6 billion ($41.5M) program to secure future technologies and a foothold in the space race.

In addition to developing the manufacturing technology and core components for the engine, South Korea is looking to build a next-gen rocket that builds on its first indigenously developed Korean orbital launch vehicle, Nuri.

After a decade of development, Nuri's payload deployment debut last October was less than perfect. While the launch was successful, it failed to deploy a payload properly when its third-stage engine burned out prematurely.

South Korea has been playing catch up on its space program since 2020, when it was freed of a 1979 Cold war-era agreement with the US that limited its ability to develop and test ballistic missiles. A thriving competitive space program would benefit the country in more ways than one, as it seeks to keep North Korea in line and looks towards 6G technology.

The country plans to launch its first lunar orbiter this year and hopes to send a spaceship to the Moon by 2030. ®


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