‘Killing event’ by dozens of SpaceX satellites annihilated by sun

Nearly 40 of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites were blown out of space and destroyed by a solar “kill event” in February, underscoring the potentially damaging effects of space weather on current and future technology.

On Feb. 3, rocket company SpaceX launched 49 of its internet-broadcasting Starlink satellites into orbit from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Left: illustration of a solar flare and a small planet. Right: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk at a satellite conference in Washington, DC, in March 2020. In February of this year, SpaceX lost dozens of satellites to a solar flare.
solarseven/Win McNamee/Getty

It was a regular occurrence for the company, which sends out a new batch of dozens of new satellites every week as part of its plan to build a giant satellite internet network.

However, the launch was doomed. Around the same time, a wave of energetic solar particles and radiation swept over our planet, triggered by an explosion on the surface of the sun.

These flares, such as solar flares or coronal mass ejections (CMEs), are known as space weather, and they can have all kinds of effects on our planet’s atmosphere and on modern technology, such as disruption of radio signals and interference from the power grid.

When this solar material reached Earth, it warmed our planet’s atmosphere, increasing the density of minute amounts of air at an altitude of 130 miles where Starlink satellites had been sent.

Once deployed, the plan was for the satellites to use onboard thrusters to raise their altitudes to their desired orbits a few hundred miles higher.

However, they were unable to do so in time, and 38 of the Starlink satellites sank lower and lower as they passed through the thickening residual atmosphere, before burning up at thousands of kilometers per hour.

A study of the incident published in August by researchers in China and the United States found that the economic loss to SpaceX from the storm would have been “several tens of millions of dollars”.

Despite the financial blow, SpaceX probably won’t have suffered much from the loss of 38 Starlink satellites, including more than 3,000 in orbit.

The incident was a successful demonstration of SpaceX’s orbital strategy; the company said it deliberately releases the satellites at very low altitudes, so they are quickly destroyed in the atmosphere if they fail, rather than becoming floating space junk.

Yet SpaceX is something of an exception in the space industry, where most satellite operators oversee networks with only a fraction of SpaceX’s numbers. For other companies, the loss of a single satellite during launch could prove devastating.

This is especially relevant now that the sun is accelerating its activity as part of its roughly 11-year solar cycle. This cycle determines how often it will launch energy blasts on Earth, and it is expected to peak in the summer of 2025.

It’s not just objects in space that can be affected by space weather events. The researchers also warned that electromagnetic interference from solar flares could end up disrupting signals on train lines – a phenomenon that has already been “well documented”, an expert said. Newsweek in July. This could lead to delays or even a dangerous accident.

The Starlink incident, meanwhile, “illustrates the complexity and difficulty of space weather forecasting, and also indicates that even small storms could have severe astronautical and financial consequences,” the August study said.

“Due to the existence of the Earth’s upper atmosphere, a large number of satellites and space debris operating between 100 and 600 km altitude are significantly affected by space weather via atmospheric drag.”[62to373mile)altitudearesignificantlyaffectedbyspaceweatherviaatmosphericdrag”[62to373mile)altitudearesignificantlyaffectedbyspaceweatherviaatmosphericdrag”

The researchers said there are “urgent needs” to better understand the effects of space weather on the atmosphere due to the “ever-increasing amount of space objects” in orbit.

The study, Unveiling of space weather during the Starlink satellite destruction event on February 4, 2022, was published in the journal Space weather August 6.

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