Up to 40 of Elon Musk's SpaceX satellites fall out of orbit after solar storm

Elon Musk's SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched last week at the Kennedy Space Centre carrying a batch of Starlink satellites. Credit: AP/PA

The newest fleet of Elon Musk's SpaceX satellites is tumbling out of orbit after being struck by a geomagnetic storm.

Up to 40 of the 49 small Starlink satellites launched on February 3 have either re-entered the Earth's atmosphere and burned up, or are on the verge of doing so, the company said in an online update.

A SpaceX statement read: "Unfortunately, the satellites deployed on Thursday were significantly impacted by a geomagnetic storm on Friday.

"These storms cause the atmosphere to warm and atmospheric density at our low deployment altitudes to increase."

SpaceX said the denser atmosphere increased the drag on the compact, flat-panel Starlink satellites - effectively dooming them.

Ground controllers tried to save the satellites by putting them into a type of hibernation and flying them in a way to minimise drag - "to effectively 'take cover from the storm'".

But the atmospheric pull was too great, and the satellites failed to awaken and climb to a higher, more stable orbit, according to the company.

The company described the lost satellites as a “unique situation”.

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

SpaceX added: "The deorbiting satellites pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric reentry - meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts hit the ground."

A string of SpaceX's StarLink satellites passes over an old stone house near Florence, Kansas, in May 2021 Credit: AP

A geomagnetic storm happens when there is a very efficient exchange of energy from the solar wind into the space environment surrounding Earth. They create periods of high-speed solar wind that can last for hours.The company 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 340 miles up (550km).

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 reenter the atmosphere and pose no threat to other spacecraft.

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

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 toward Earth.

Since launching the first Starlink satellites in 2019, Musk envisions a constellation of thousands more satellites to increase internet service.

SpaceX is trying to help restore internet service to Tonga through this network following the devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami.

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.