SpaceX’s falling Starlink satellites spotlight issues about the way forward for orbital site visitors

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Starlink satellites in orbit
A rocket’s-eye view shows a stack of SpaceX Starlink satellites just before orbital deployment. (SpaceX Photo)

SpaceX says that most of the satellites it launched last week for its Starlink broadband internet constellation are doomed to fall from orbit due to a solar storm.

Based on the company’s analysis, as many as 40 of the 49 satellites — which were built at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash. — will plunge through the atmosphere and burn up. Some have already made the plunge.

“Ah, how I love the smell of burning satellites in the morning,” Marco Langbroek, a satellite consultant at Leiden University in the Netherlands, joked in a tweet.

In an update, SpaceX stressed that the falling satellites “pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric re-entry — meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts hit the ground.”

Nevertheless, the satellite failures draw attention to the challenges raised by the rise of satellite mega-constellations, even as the Federal Communications Commission considers SpaceX’s proposal to launch nearly 30,000 second-generation Starlink satellites into new orbital configurations.

SpaceX has already launched more than 2,000 Starlink satellites, with the objective of providing broadband internet access to billions of people around the world who are currently underserved. Starlink services are currently available on a limited basis, but thousands more satellites have yet to be launched to expand connectivity.

The FCC approved SpaceX’s plan for a constellation of nearly 12,000 satellites years ago. SpaceX says the second-generation constellation, also known as Gen2, would provide wider and better service.

SpaceX isn’t the only company targeting the satellite connectivity market: OneWeb, a British-Indian venture that emerged from bankruptcy in 2020, has launched nearly 400 satellites and is due to send up another 34 this week. It plans to ramp up commercial service this year.

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Amazon, meanwhile, is laying the groundwork for its Project Kuiper satellite network in Redmond, not far from SpaceX’s satellite manufacturing operation.

In comments filed with the FCC, Amazon mentioned satellite failures and the potential for orbital collisions as factors that had to be considered in weighing SpaceX’s Gen2 proposal.

“The likelihood of conjunction increases substantially when hundreds or thousands of satellites from different constellations are operating at close altitudes,” Amazon lead counsel C. Andrew Keisner wrote.

To reduce the risk of collision or interference, Keisner urged the FCC to require that SpaceX’s Starlink satellites fly no higher than 580 kilometers (360 miles), and that certain types of operational data should be shared.

Officials from NASA and the National Science Foundation were among other commenters raising concerns about SpaceX’s Gen2 plans.

NASA’s Samantha Fonder wrote that the plans “have the potential to impact NASA operations and the safety of NASA assets.”

Read more: Comments from NASA and NSF about Starlink

Fonder said the space agency suggests that “SpaceX work with NASA to demonstrate the proposed [satellite auto-maneuvering] capability with increasing volumes of satellites prior to each successive launch so that it may troubleshoot any issues that arise and make adjustments, as necessary.”

NSF officials told the FCC that they share the “general concerns of NASA, regulators and satellite operators with respect to orbital debris and congestion.”

Just last week, NSF’s NOIRLab unveiled a partnership with the International Astronomical Union and the SKA Observatory to address the challenges that mega-constellations pose for astronomers and skygazers.

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Roughly 200 Starlink satellites have gone out of operation after launch — either due to on-orbit failure, or intentional or unplanned deorbiting. SpaceX said the latest failures were the result of a geomagnetic storm that occurred on Friday while the satellites were still in their initial 210-kilometer-high (130-mile-high) orbits:

“These storms cause the atmosphere to warm and atmospheric density at our low deployment altitudes to increase. In fact, onboard GPS suggests the escalation speed and severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50 percent higher than during previous launches. The Starlink team commanded the satellites into a safe-mode where they would fly edge-on (like a sheet of paper) to minimize drag — to effectively ‘take cover from the storm’ — and continued to work closely with the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron and LeoLabs to provide updates on the satellites based on ground radars.”

Starlink satellites are equipped with krypton ion thrusters for on-orbit maneuvers, but SpaceX said the increased atmospheric drag prevented the satellites from getting out of their safe-mode configurations and raising their orbits.

The company highlighted the fact that the satellites are designed to burn up completely as they fall from orbit. “This unique situation demonstrates the great lengths the Starlink team has gone to ensure the system is on the leading edge of on-orbit debris mitigation,” SpaceX said.

For what it’s worth, the current solar activity cycle is projected to peak in 2025.

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