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Sun typhoon knocks out 40 newly introduced SpaceX web satellites

LOS ANGELES, California: Some 40 of 49 satellites newly launched by SpaceX were disabled following a solar storm triggered by a large burst of radiation from the sun.

The SpaceX announcement, posted on its website, said the satellites, part of its Starlink internet communications network, were struck February 4, a day after they were launched to a preliminary “low-deployment” orbit about 130 miles above Earth.

The launch by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket flown from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida roughly coincided with a “geomagnetic storm watch” posted by the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center.

According to the alert, solar flare activity from a “full halo coronal mass ejection” – a large blast of solar plasma and electromagnetic radiation from the sun’s surface – was detected on January 29, and likely to reach Earth by February 1.

Starlink operators tried commanding the satellites into a “safe-mode” orbital configuration, allowing them to fly an orbit to minimize damage, but those efforts failed for most of the satellites, forcing them into lower altitudes where they burned up on re-entry, SpaceX said.

“This is unprecedented, as far as I know,” Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told Reuters. He said he believed it marked the single greatest loss of satellites from a solar storm, and first mass satellite failure caused by an increase in atmospheric density, as opposed to bombardment of charged particles and electromagnetic radiation itself.

McDowell said the incident raised questions about whether the elevated orbital drag caused by the solar storm exceeded design limits or whether SpaceX believed incorrectly that the satellites could handle the solar storm.

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It appeared from SpaceX’s account, McDowell said, that “they weren’t expecting to have to handle that much density, in which case it sounds like they weren’t paying attention to the space weather reports.”