The accident is believed to be the largest mass loss of satellites from a single magnetic storm, said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center.
In an announcement posted on its website on Tuesday, the company said that the storm hit the satellites on Friday, February 4, a day after it was launched into a temporarily “low” orbit at an altitude of about 210 kilometers from Earth.
SpaceX said it routinely deploys satellites in such low orbits initially so that they can fall back quickly and safely to Earth and burn up upon entry if a failure is detected during initial system checks.
However, the company did not clarify whether it had expected the severity of the space weather conditions it was exposed to, caused by a solar storm days earlier, when it launched the latest batch of its 49 satellites.
According to SpaceX, the speed and intensity of the solar storm significantly increased the density of the atmosphere at the satellite’s low orbit, causing increased friction or drag and destroying at least 40 of them.
The company added that the Starlink network operators tried to direct the satellites to a “safe position” to fly in a manner that would reduce drag, but those efforts failed with most of the satellites, causing them to slide to lower levels of the atmosphere where they burned up on return.
“This is unprecedented to my knowledge,” McDowell told Reuters. He stated that he believed that this was the largest single loss of satellites due to a solar storm, and the first mass disruption of satellites as a result of the increased density of the atmosphere.
SpaceX, the Los Angeles-based space rocket company founded by billionaire Elon Musk, has launched hundreds of small satellites into orbit since 2019 under Starlink’s high-speed internet network. Musk said on Twitter on January 15 that the network has 1,469 active satellites, and that 272 is moving into operational orbits.
The company said it eventually envisions deploying about 30,000 satellites, up from 12,000 it had previously planned.