A GEOMAGNETIC storm has doomed dozens of SpaceX satellites to a fiery demise by preventing them from reaching their final orbit.
Forty of the 49 Starlink satellites launched by the California rocket-maker last week will disintegrate as they deorbit and burn up in Earth's atmosphere.
Estimates suggest that each satellite costs SpaceX $250,000 to build and launch, meaning the storm could cost it as much as $10million.
In an update yesterday, SpaceX, which is run by billionaire Elon Musk, explained how the storm would affect its most recent Starlink deployment.
The WiFi-beaming technology is typically deployed into lower orbits so that they can be quickly deorbited and destroyed in case something goes wrong.
Once initial checks are complete, they're pushed to higher orbits where they join a mega-constellation that provides internet access to Starlink customers.
A geomagnetic storm that rattled Earth's magnetosphere on February 4 raised atmospheric drag, preventing the satellites from raising their orbits.
As a result, they will be pulled back towards Earth by its gravitational pull before turning to dust as they re-enter the atmosphere.
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"Unfortunately, the satellites deployed on Thursday were significantly impacted by a geomagnetic storm on Friday," SpaceX wrote on its website.
"These storms cause the atmosphere to warm and atmospheric density at our low deployment altitudes to increase."
The company added that onboard GPS data suggested that the severity of the storm caused atmospheric drag to jump by up to 50 per cent.
The satellites were put into a "safe-mode" that instructed them to fly edge on – like a piece of paper – to the storm to minimise drag.
However, this wasn't enough to save them.
"The increased drag at the low altitudes prevented the satellites from leaving safe-mode to begin orbit raising manoeuvres," SpaceX said.
"Up to 40 of the satellites will reenter or already have reentered the Earth's atmosphere."
SpaceX stressed that the soon-to-be-dead space tech posed no collision risk to other satellites and will break up upon reentry.
SpaceX announced Starlink – its project to beam internet coverage to anywhere on the planet using a constellation of satellites – in 2015, and launched its first batch four years later.
The company intends to put 12,000 satellites into Earth's orbit, possibly rising to 42,000 in future. Currently, it has almost 2,000 in orbit.
Geomagnetic storms are triggered when the Sun spews out charged particles that interact with Earth's magnetic field.
They can disrupt satellites and in extreme cases mess with GPS systems and even shut down power grids.
Astronomers queried why SpaceX went ahead with last week's launch from the Kennedy Space Center given the impending storm.
"It raises a lot of questions," astronomer and author Dr. John Barentine wrote on Twitter. "Did SpaceX knowingly launch into such conditions?"
He questioned whether SpaceX was ready for a rise in the rate of geomagnetic storms as the Sun enters solar maximum, the point in the solar cycle when it is most active, over the next few years.
"Evidently, they can't cope with a very sudden increase in drag," Dr. Barentine tweeted.
"But they do have little krypton-fueled ion engines on them that they use for orbit raising.
"What's not clear is whether they have enough oomph (and fuel) to keep them on station as we head toward solar max."
Dr Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard's Centre for Astrophysics, also expressed concern, tweeting: "All the different indices seem to indicate this was a pretty minor event, implying it's surprising Starlink couldn't handle it…"
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