Technology

SpaceX satellites are tumbling out of orbit after solar storm

SpaceX has close to 2,000 Starlink satellites orbiting Earth and providing internet service to remote corners of the world [File: Ritzau Scanpix/Mads Claus Rasmussen/Reuters]

Up to 40 of the 49 small satellites launched last week have either re-entered the atmosphere and burned up, or are on the verge of doing so, the company said in an online update Tuesday night.

SpaceX said a geomagnetic storm last Friday made the atmosphere denser, which increased the drag on the Starlink satellites, effectively dooming them.

SpaceX still has close to 2,000 Starlink satellites orbiting Earth and providing internet service to remote corners of the world. They circle the globe more than 550 km (340 miles) up.

The satellites hit by the solar storm were in a temporary position. SpaceX deliberately launches them into this unusually low orbit so that any duds can quickly re-enter the atmosphere and pose no threat to other spacecraft.

There is no danger from these newly falling satellites, either in orbit or on the ground, according to the company.

Each satellite weighs less than 260kg (575 pounds).

SpaceX described the lost satellites as a “unique situation”. Such geomagnetic storms are caused by intense solar activity like flares, which can send streams of plasma from the sun’s corona hurtling out into space and towards Earth.

London-based OneWeb has its own internet satellites up there. And Amazon plans to start launching its satellites later this year.

Astronomers are distressed that these mega-constellations will ruin nighttime observations from Earth. The International Astronomical Union is forming a new centre for the protection of dark skies.

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