On February 9, 2022, SpaceX lost forty Starlink satellites after being slammed by a geomagnetic storm a day after their launch, which caused them to fall out of orbit and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
What is Starlink?
Starlink is an internet service operated by SpaceX (which is owned by Elon Musk) that aims to provide high-speed internet access to every single place in the world (including extremely remote areas where no internet wiring is present) through thousands of orbiting satellites. Currently, Starlink has over 1,800 satellites in orbit around the globe.
What is a geomagnetic storm?
A geomagnetic storm is a brief disruption of the Earth’s magnetosphere generated by a solar flare shockwave interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field. As for how solar flares are created, atoms are blasted apart into nuclei and electrons by the Sun’s incredibly high temperatures, which all flow together inside plasma. The Sun’s magnetic field shapes and moves this plasma in an unpredictable manner. Magnetic “knots” holding tremendous quantities of energy are formed as the plasma bends and flows around itself. When these knots are broken, all of the stored energy surges forth into the solar system, causing the solar winds to form.
What are the specifics?
Although a geomagnetic storm can cause the beautiful Northern Lights, it can also have damaging effects. In this case, the storm heated and made the atmosphere more dense than initially expected. This, in turn, caused atmospheric drag (a force acting opposite to the motion of objects) to go 50% higher than previous launches SpaceX. As such, the drag prevented the satellites from getting into a stable orbit, causing them to fall back down and burn up.
What are the implications?
Apart from losing millions of dollars in equipment, this event serves as a reminder that putting things in space is an extremely difficult task that can go awry at any moment.