“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,” the post said.
An analysis suggested that an “increased drag at the low altitudes prevented the satellites from leaving safe-mode to begin orbit raising maneuvers, and up to 40 of the satellites will reenter or already have reentered the Earth’s atmosphere,” SpaceX’s blog post said.
According to the post, the “severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag” and forced the Starlink team to switch the satellites into “a safe-mode” to minimize drag.
Launch of the satellites, carried aloft by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket flown from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, roughly coincided with a geomagnetic storm watch posted for last Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 2 and Feb. 3, by the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center.
The alert warned that solar flare activity from a “full halo coronal mass ejection”—a large blast of solar plasma and electromagnetic radiation from the sun’s surface—was detected on Jan. 29, and was likely to reach Earth as early as Feb. 1.
The alert also said resulting geomagnetic storm conditions on Earth were “likely to persist” into Feb. 3 “at weakening levels.”
“This is unprecedented as far as I know,” Harvard University-based astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Reuters in an email, saying it was the first time he was aware of satellite failures caused by an increase in atmospheric density from a solar storm, rather by higher electromagnetic radiation itself.
SpaceX has about 2,000 Starlink satellites orbiting Earth and providing internet service in remote areas worldwide, according to its website.
A solar storm is a disturbance on the Sun’s surface, which can radiate throughout the Solar System, including Earth. Some researchers have warned that a bad solar storm could cause significant disturbance to electronic systems, including the internet. And a geomagnetic storm, which is generally associated with a coronal mass ejection, is a temporary disturbance of the Earth’s magnetosphere via solar winds.
Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California—Irvine told Wired magazine that “our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event. We have very limited understanding of what the extent of the damage would be.”
Scientists have cited the so-called “Carrington Event” in 1859 as a disturbance that could wreak havoc on electronic systems. The Carrington Event, which created strong aurora effects in the tropics, caused telegraph systems across North America to fail.
Reuters contributed to this report.