On February 3, a Falcon 9 rocket sent 49 Starlink satellites into low-earth orbit in what has become a typical launch routine. The launch involved the latest group of satellites placed in low orbit, joining more than 2,000 others in a satellite array that SpaceX forecast to reach 42,000 units eventually. This time, however, space weather intervened to thwart the satellites’ entry into a stable orbit, and 40 of them are in the process of reentering the earth’s atmosphere, where they will burn up.
RVtravel.com has reported on developments with the Starlink WiFi service since the company announced last year that it would design its service with RV users and other mobile clients in mind. Starlink mobile WiFi thus far has been deployed with geographic and service limitations, as it strives to launch more satellites.
Falcon 9 successfully delivered its payload into orbit at approximately 130 miles above the earth. The satellites achieved controlled flight but were adversely affected by a “minor” geomagnetic storm that resulted from solar activity. The solar storm increased the temperature at orbital altitude, along with the atmospheric density, creating a drag on the freshly deployed satellites that prevented them from reaching their planned orbital height. The increased drag degraded the orbit, causing the satellites to reenter the atmosphere (video on YouTube). 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 minimize drag,” says SpaceX. “Preliminary analysis shows 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.”
SpaceX says that 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.”
For a thorough scientific explanation of what happened, see Spaceweather.com.
Neither SpaceX nor Starlink have issued any statement regarding the effect of the “largest single loss of satellites for SpaceX” on the timeline for broader implementation of Starlink mobile WiFi service. Stay tuned.