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SpaceX to lose as many as 40 Starlink satellites due to space storm.

  • After a solar storm struck the Earth's atmosphere, Elon Musk's SpaceX expects to lose nearly an entire launch's worth of Starlink satellites.
  • The company deployed 49 Starlink satellites on Feb. 3, but due to the geomagnetic storm, "up to 40 of the satellites" will be destroyed.
  • SpaceX does not publish the actual cost of its Starlink satellites or Falcon 9 launches, but based on recent statements from company leadership, losing the entirety of the mission might cost upwards of $50 million.

After a solar storm struck the Earth's atmosphere, Elon Musk's SpaceX expects to lose nearly an entire launch's worth of Starlink satellites.

On Feb. 3, the business used a Falcon 9 rocket to launch 49 Starlink satellites. The operation succeeded in sending the satellites to orbit, but calamity struck the following day.

The Earth's atmosphere was disrupted by a geomagnetic storm. The Starlink satellites were in a low orbit, and the corporation predicted that "up to 40" of them would be lost in the storm, burning up in the Earth's atmosphere.

The company's objective is to establish an interconnected network with thousands of satellites to bring high-speed internet anywhere on the earth, dubbed Starlink. To present, SpaceX has launched around 1,900 Starlink satellites into orbit, with approximately 145,000 users.

Tamitha Skov, an Aerospace Corp. research scientist, explained the basics of a geomagnetic storm to CNBC: First, a storm occurs when "the sun sends off magnets." The solar storm's energy is absorbed by the Earth's magnetic shield, which heats up the upper atmosphere, causing it to inflate and become denser. This increases the drag on low-Earth-orbit satellites.

SpaceX said that "the escalation speed and intensity of the storm caused air drag to surge" by up to 50% more than what satellites in low orbit normally encounter. The company's operations team put the satellites into a fail-safe mode once the increased atmospheric drag was detected, which spins the spacecraft onto its edge to reduce drag – a position the corporation has previously described as a "shark-fin" configuration.

Only about ten of the Starlink satellites are likely to survive and reach their intended orbit.

The storm, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believes was caused by a solar flare on Jan. 29, was not mentioned by SpaceX.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) rates geomagnetic storms on a range of G1 to G5. On Feb. 2, the day before SpaceX launched, the agency issued a warning for a "likely" G1 to G2 geomagnetic storm.

Tthere are an average of 1,700 such G1 storms over the length of an 11-year solar cycle, according to NOAA data highlighted by Erika Palmerio, a space weather research scientist at Predictive Science, a company that supports solar studies for US government agencies.

"A storm of the magnitude that took out the Starlink satellites last week is a rather common occurrence in terms of geomagnetic activity," Palmerio added.

SpaceX places the satellites in a lower orbit at first in order to launch more at once and to ensure that any problems discovered after launch result in a malfunctioning satellite rapidly deorbiting and burning up in the atmosphere. Starlink satellites, according to the business, are designed to entirely dissolve upon reentry, "meaning no orbital trash is formed and no satellite parts impact the ground."

SpaceX does not publish the actual cost of its Starlink satellites or Falcon 9 launches because it is a private firm, but losing the majority of the mission might cost upwards of $50 million.

When SpaceX reuses its Falcon 9 rockets, the cost each launch is around $28 million to $30 million, according to the firm. Furthermore, the company's leadership has stated that a cost estimate of $1 million per satellite is "far off." At half that figure ($500,000 per satellite), the loss of around 40 satellites would cost around $20 million.

Notably, SpaceX had previously deorbited "one or two" Starlink satellites following a mission, astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell.  McDowell works as an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where she keeps track of satellite launches.

"However, losing the majority of the batch is unprecedented," McDowell said. "This is monumental in comparison to anything that has come before."

McDowell also stated that the loss is significant for SpaceX because the firm has "been quite successful" in the "context of historic satellite launches."

"At least the rocket is fairly reliable and there have been relatively few total failures of Starlink satellites since mid-2020," McDowell said.