SpaceX is likely to lose a large chunk of a newly launched batch of Starlink satellites. Due to a geomagnetic storm in the atmosphere, there was much more resistance and up to 40 satellites will fall back into the atmosphere and burn up.
SpaceX says preliminary analysis shows that the increased drag at low altitudes prevented the satellites from coming out of safe mode. As a result, they were unable to begin their maneuvers to reach higher Earth orbit. SpaceX’s Starlink team put the satellites into safe mode so that they would fly edge-on, more or less like a sheet of paper with the goal of minimizing drag. The idea was that that would provide some sort of cover for the storm.
It is a February 3 launch. Then 49 Starlink satellites were launched by a Falcon 9 rocket. These satellites are deposited at an altitude of about 210 km above the earth. That went well, but right on the day of the launch, the satellites had to deal with a geomagnetic storm. According to GPS data, the storm’s gravity led to 50 percent more atmospheric resistance than during previous launches.
The company says the 40 satellites likely to fall back into the atmosphere pose no risk of collision with other satellites. SpaceX says the satellites are designed to decay once they reenter the atmosphere. This should also prevent debris or parts of the satellites from hitting the ground.
SpaceX does not yet provide information on the exact number of lost satellites; this is probably related to the fact that not all satellites that were supposedly lost have actually burned up in the atmosphere.
Image from the February 3 launch