Last week, SpaceX launched 49 of its Starlink satellites into orbit. That’s normal enough: the company has put nearly 2,000 of its broadband satellites into space so far, with plans for another 40,000.
What’s not normal is that it threw last week’s batch into a geomagnetic storm that knocked up to 40 of them out of orbit.
Now images have emerged showing at least one of the satellites burning up in Puerto Rico’s skies.
A camera operated by the non-profit astronomy organization Sociedad de Astronomia del Caribe (SAC) captured trails of fire in the night sky around 2:40 a.m. local time on February 7.
In one incident blogLeiden University expert Marco Langbroek said it was unclear how many satellites reentered the Earth’s atmosphere on February 7.
“In particular, the second object is spectacular,” he wrote, referring to the rain of debris captured on SAC video.
“The two objects could belong to an object that broke up earlier; or be two separate objects close to each other in the same orbital plane.”
The satellites are likely to continue re-entering the atmosphere until mid-February, Langbroek said. However, they should not pose a threat to people on the ground.
“Starlink satellites aren’t very big and don’t have big rocket motors, so there’s very little chance of anything sticking around and reaching the Earth’s surface from these re-entries: everything will burn up in the atmosphere,” he wrote.
Although SpaceX hasn’t confirmed whether the object – or objects – pictured are its satellites, the company has released a explanation of what was wrong.
According to a blog on the SpaceX website, all 49 satellites launched on February 3 were “significantly impacted” by a geomagnetic storm on February 4, causing up to 40 of them to lose altitude and back into our planet’s atmosphere.
This is due to a combination of factors. First, Starlink satellites are launched into a relatively low orbit around the Earth so that they de-orbit relatively quickly in the event of a technical problem, thereby reducing the risk of collision.
However, geomagnetic storms heat up the upper atmosphere, causing it to expand and increase drag on objects in close enough orbit – like Starlink satellites.
SpaceX responded by placing the satellites in a “safe mode” that minimizes drag by having them fly off the edge (“like a sheet of paper,” as the company put it). But the combination of safe mode and increased drag prevented the satellites from raising their orbit, dooming 40 of them to a fiery end.
Count the cost
The entire incident was likely a costly affair for SpaceX. Analysts have estimated that each Starlink satellite costs between $250,000 and $500,000 (€219,000 and €438,000), while in 2020 SpaceX revealed that each launch of its Falcon 9 rocket cost the company $28 million. dollars (24.5 million euros).
That puts a near $50 million (€43.8 million) worst-case price tag on last week’s geomagnetic storm.
But for some people watching the satellites disintegrate, it was a remarkable event.
“This is one of the most striking and impressive decay sightings seen in Puerto Rico,” said SAC science communicator Eddie Irizarry.
“It was very impressive, I saw it from the start and it was very different from the meteors… I will never be able to forget this event,” said Juan Velez, a SAC supporter who witnessed the event. ‘event.