A solar “destruction event” in February destroyed over 40 of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites and brought attention to the potential harm that space weather could do to both present and future technologies.
49 of the internet-beaming Starlink satellites were put into orbit on February 3 by the rocket company SpaceX from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
It was routine for the business, which, as part of its plans to create a massive satellite internet network, launches a fresh batch of dozens of new satellites every week.
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The launch, however, was bound to failure. Around the same time, an explosion on the surface of the sun caused a wave of powerful solar particles and radiation to sweep over our globe.
These eruptions, such as solar flares or coronal mass ejections (CMEs), are referred to as space weather and can have a variety of consequences on the atmosphere of our planet as well as on contemporary technology, such as the interference of radio signals and electrical grids.
The tiny volumes of air at an altitude of 130 miles, where the Starlink satellites had been launched, became more dense as this solar material heated up Earth’s atmosphere upon arrival.
The satellites were to be launched and then use their onboard thrusters to increase their altitude to the desired orbits by a few hundred miles.
NEWSWEEK SUBSCRIPTION OFFERS > But they couldn’t, and 38 of the Starlink satellites pushed through the increasing residual atmosphere, dropped lower and lower, and then burned up at thousands of kilometres per hour.
According to a report on the incident that was published in August by Chinese and American academics, SpaceX would have suffered “many tens of millions of dollars” in financial losses as a result of the storm.
Despite the financial blow, SpaceX probably won’t have suffered much because 38 Starlink satellites were lost, even though there were more than 3,000 of them in space.
The incident served as a successful test of SpaceX’s orbital strategy, according to the corporation, which deploys satellites at very low altitudes on purpose so that, in the case of a failure, they are promptly destroyed in the atmosphere rather than ending up as a floating piece of space junk.
But in the space sector, where most satellite operators manage networks with a small fraction of the number that SpaceX has, SpaceX is something of an exception. The loss of even one satellite during launch might be disastrous for other businesses.
This is especially important right now because the sun’s roughly 11-year solar cycle is causing it to become more active. This cycle, which determines how frequently it will unleash energy blasts toward Earth, is expected to reach its apex in the summer of 2025.
Space-weather events can have an impact on more than simply celestial objects. A specialist told Newsweek in July that the electromagnetic interference from solar eruptions has already been “well-documented” and that it could eventually cause problems with signalling on train lines. Delays or possibly a dangerous accident could result from this.
The August report notes that the Starlink incident “illustrates the complexity and difficulties of space weather prediction, as well as indicating that even modest storms may generate serious astronautic and financial implications.”
A substantial number of satellites and space debris operating between 100 and 600 km [62 to 373 mile] altitude are considerably impacted by space weather via atmospheric drag as a result of the presence of Earth’s upper atmosphere.
The “ever-increasing volume of space objects” in orbit, according to the researchers, necessitate “urgent requirements” to better understand how space weather affects the atmosphere.
Unveiling the Space Weather During the Starlink Satellites Destruction Event on 4 February 2022, the study’s title, was released on August 6 in the journal Space Weather.