SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet constellation has experienced a significant loss of over 200 satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) since July, as reported by a satellite tracking website. This is the first time that Starlink has faced such a large loss of satellites within a short period of time. Solar flares are believed to be the main cause of these losses, as they can alter the satellites’ orbits and cause damage or destruction.
The exact model of the lost satellites is unknown, but if they are the newer Starlink satellites that SpaceX regularly launches, the company will need to conduct at least nine more Falcon 9 launches to compensate for the lost satellites. SpaceX’s subsidiary, Starlink, has rapidly built the world’s largest LEO satellite internet constellation and the world’s largest satellite constellation overall. However, recent upgrades to the spacecraft and limitations with the Falcon 9 rocket have reduced the number of satellites the company can launch per mission.
The newer satellites are of the second-generation and are more powerful, larger, and heavier compared to the earlier models. This poses a challenge for fitting a large number of satellites inside a single payload fairing of the Falcon 9 rocket.
In February 2022, SpaceX faced a solar flare event that damaged around 40 of its recently launched satellites, confirming the risks satellites face while in space. The heat from the solar flare increased atmospheric density, making it impossible for the satellites to maintain their intended trajectory.
According to data from satellitemap.space, a satellite tracking website, the number of burnt-up Starlink satellites has rapidly increased. As of the latest readings, 568 satellites have burnt up in the atmosphere, compared to 248 satellites at the start of the year. This indicates a higher number of satellites destroyed in the last two months than in the first seven months of the year.
SpaceX has outlined measures it takes to maintain satellite sustainability, including features like ‘ducking’ that allow satellites to retract their solar panels in case of a collision. The company has also emphasized that the low orbit of the satellites reduces the chances of polluting Earth’s orbit.
SpaceX regularly provides updates on the health of its constellation to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but these reports are filed on a semiannual basis. Therefore, it is unlikely that the data for the satellites lost since July will be available soon. As its future competitor, Amazon’s subsidiary Kuiper, prepares to launch its own experimental satellites, SpaceX is committed to meeting the FCC’s timeline for launching a portion of its second-generation satellites to avoid penalties.