Elon Musk and Starlink have had a tough week after a batch of satellites meant to go up into orbit experienced an unexpected, and pretty damaging set of circumstances that left them useless. In fact, the mission went so wrong, that some never even reached their intended destination, instead burning up in the atmosphere as they hurtled back to Earth. It’s a blow for the company and something that was more akin to a freak accident than a mistake on the part of the technology or human error. Though in a cool video, we get to see what happens when a lot of money in technology goes up atmospheric flames.
On February 3rd, Elon Musk and Starlink sent a batch of 49 satellites up as part of a planned launch. They went up from Kennedy Space Center last Thursday, February 3rd. Everything was going according to plan with all of them reaching the preliminary orbit. But when they tried to reach the final spot, what’s called the operational altitude, something went wrong. They encountered a geomagnetic storm that did not allow the satellites to get into the next phase. Because of it, Starlink has said that about 40, or 80% of the mission, would end up coming back into Earth’s atmosphere.
This reentry of the Elon Musk Starlink satellites was what was caught on film by YouTuber Kevinizooropa who captured space debris coming through the atmosphere in the skies over Puerto Rico. In the video, you can see a number of streaks across the sky as what are believed to be parts of the Starlink satellites reentering the atmosphere. The company had said that the satellites failing and returning back out of orbit posed no risk to anyone on the ground because they would burn on reentry. This video gives some evidence of that. Check it out:
In some ways, this kind of “accident” to the Starlink satellites highlights part of the plan by Elon Musk and company to try to reduce at least some of what’s happening in orbit around Earth. The initial part of the launch only brought the satellites into sub-orbit before reaching their final destination. This is done purposefully so that if anything goes wrong or they malfunction, the objects will be able to de-orbit and won’t end up as space junk orbiting Earth with all the other space junk already out there. So when the geomagnetic storm hit, rendering these satellites useless, the part of the plan to have them fall back to Earth work out “perfectly”.
The geomagnetic storm that wiped out Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites was essentially part of a solar flare from the Sun that increased activity around the Earth’s magnetic field. It makes the atmosphere, or at least this section, increase in density and drag. That made it more difficult for the satellites to pass through on the initial launch. Hence the fiery streaks in the sky. And in case you were wondering how much these 40 lost Starlink rockets were going to cost Elon Musk, well it’s only a fraction of what they are working with. There are about 1,200 satellites already up there in orbit.