Elon Musk's satellite internet service Starlink experienced a devastating space-weather impact last Friday when a geomagnetic storm forced "dozens" of newly launched low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites into "safe-mode" where they experienced "deorbiting" and will or already have crashed back to Earth, according to a SpaceX blog post.
"Unfortunately, the satellites deployed on Thursday were significantly impacted by a geomagnetic storm on Friday. These storms cause the atmosphere to warm and atmospheric density at our low deployment altitudes to increase.
In fact, onboard GPS suggests the escalation speed and severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase 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—to effectively "take cover from the storm"—and continued to work closely with the Space Force's 18th Space Control Squadron and LeoLabs to provide updates on the satellites based on ground radars.
Preliminary analysis show 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," the blog post said.
SpaceX said the "deorbiting satellites pose zero collision risk" with other satellites and are designed to burn up in the atmosphere upon "reentry" to mitigate satellite parts from striking objects on the ground.
After last week's launch, it's expected that up to 40 of the 49 LEO satellites will be lost. The image below is the satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket before being detached in LEO.
The purpose of the satellites was initially to help with Musk's Starlink project, which aims to give internet from space to people in rural communities. There was no mention if the loss would affect future service for customers at certain latitudes.
Jacob Geer, the UK Space Agency's Head of Space Surveillance, said: "Events like this are a reminder that space is challenging – getting satellites or astronauts into orbit is still not easy."
Starlink could experience more space weather events during future launches as Sunspot Cycle 25 began in 2H20. This current cycle is expected to be super active and may pose a risk to satellites.
Surely Musk and his space companies are following the space weather developments to avoid future mishaps.