40 of the 49 Starlink satellites were destroyed by a solar storm yesterday, but more solar storms could cause further damage as the sun approaches solar maximum.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has lost 40 of the 49 Starlink satellites launched on Feb. 3 to a G1 solar storm. This has posed a threat to many more satellites that are at lower altitudes and could face the music with more solar storms heading this way. And there are sure to be more solar storms to come. As we enter the period of a solar maximum, the incidences of solar flares, CMEs (Coronal Mass Ejections) and the resulting solar storms will increase. Since the maximum solar period will last at least until 2025, satellites in space could be exposed to damage and disrupt communication systems around the world.
Speak with CNBCTamitha Skov, a research scientist at Aerospace Corp, said: “The reason why [solar storms have] has not been a big deal because for the past three to four years we have been on what we call ‘solar minimum’”. The sun enters these 11-year cycles of solar maximum and solar minimum. In the solar maximum, the sun becomes active, resulting in more fission reactions on the surface that give rise to solar flares and solar storms. On the other hand, these activities are limited during the solar minimum and the sun essentially goes into hibernation.
Since the last three to four years has been the minimum for solar energy, many commercial companies have been able to successfully launch their own satellites. Nearly 4,000 satellites have been launched in the past four years, according to a report by Bryce Tech. Now, in the wake of the untimely demise of Starlink satellites launched by Elon Musk, the world is having a rude awakening.
Rising solar storms threaten satellites
“Many of these commercial ventures … don’t understand how significantly space weather can affect satellites, especially these small satellites,” Skov said. Most of these satellites are at lower altitudes of 210 km instead of higher up at 550 km, where most large satellites orbit the Earth. But the low elevation doesn’t do much when it comes to solar storms. The Earth’s atmosphere creates a spongy structure that, while keeping the harmful geomagnetic radiation from the solar storms away from the surface, allows it to absorb into the upper atmosphere and warm up quickly. This warming results in the burning of satellites, as Starlink satellites are proof of.
Furthermore, Starlink satellites had their own structural flaw. With a small body and large solar panels for power, the dragging effect of these solar winds certainly meant they circle around and crash onto the Earth’s surface. “Some of us in the space weather community have been talking about Starlink satellites falling from the sky for years — because we knew it was only a matter of time once our sun became active again.”