Solar storm fears: Earth faces ‘major issues’ after 40 SpaceX satellites wiped out

NASA Solar Observatory captures solar flares in October

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Elon Musk’s SpaceX revealed it was in the process of losing up to 80 percent (40 out of 49) of the Starlink low Earth-orbit (LEO) satellites launched after just five days. It comes after the satellites were “significantly impacted by a geomagnetic storm on Friday”, the company said. A geomagnetic storm occurs when there is an efficient exchange of energy from the solar wind into the space environment surrounding the Earth.

Even the most minor storms can cause chaos when they come into contact with satellites.

Space weather physicist Tamitha Skov, compared the event to a “similar” solar storm three decades ago.

She wrote on Twitter: “Many satellites had major issues with the March 1989 #solarstorm.

“We call that event the ‘standard candle’ of #SpaceWeather. It calibrated the whole field towards operations and forecasting

“But we’ve never had so many small satellites in LEO. #Starlink is unique in many ways, especially in their low inertia & large solar arrays– a perfect recipe to maximize drag”.

While this was a minor storm, Ms Skov warned: “What will a large X-flare do to the Starlink constellations.

“Ive been warning of this potential for years.

“This is not a surprise at all. It’s why Starlink should increase their perigee above 600km. This problem will only worsen as SolarCycle25 continues to ramp up.”

The Starlink satellites were in a relatively low 130 mile-high (200km) temporary orbit.

US Space Weather Center (SWPC) ranks solar storms on a scale of “G1 Minor”, the least intense, all the way up to “G5 Extreme”.

But even the weakest of storms threaten “power-grid fluctuations” and have a “minor impact on satellite operations”.

At the stronger end of the scale, “all of that extra radiation can damage the satellites we use for communications and navigation, it can disrupt power grids that provide our electricity”.

The SWPC said: “During storms, the currents in the ionosphere, as well as the energetic particles that precipitate into the ionosphere add energy in the form of heat that can increase the density and distribution of density in the upper atmosphere, causing extra drag on satellites in low-earth orbit.”

SpaceX said: “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.”

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA ) says: “Drag has a significant impact on spacecraft in low Earth orbit (LEO), generally defined as an orbit below an altitude of approximately 2,000 km (1,200 miles).”

Space X confirmed in a statement that 40 satellites will deorbit.

It comes after the company launched 49 Starlink satellites via Falcon 9 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which cost it $15million (£11million).

But SpaceX assured that “the deorbiting satellites pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon reentry – meaning no orbital debris and no satellite parts hit the ground.”

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