Elon Musk has many companies. One of them is called Starlink and its goal is to fill the sky with satellites that provide internet to the citizens of the world. Along the way he is leaving a low orbit of space junk, but that’s another topic.
Let’s get down to business, SpaceX’s Starlink constellation of internet satellites has lost more than two hundred satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) since July, according to data from a satellite tracking website.
This is the first time Starlink has lost a significant number of satellites in a short period of time, and these losses are usually influenced by solar flares that cause orbit changes and damage or destroy the spacecraft.
The nature of the satellites, i.e. their model, is unclear, and if they are the newer Starlink satellites that SpaceX regularly launches, the company will have to perform at least nine Falcon 9 launches to make up for the lost satellites.
The largest constellation of satellites on our planet
Since being a subsidiary of SpaceX, Starlink has rapidly built the world’s largest constellation of LEO Internet satellites and the world’s largest constellation of satellites by rapidly launching them via the Falcon 9 rocket.
However, satellite upgrades and Falcon 9 limitations have reduced the number of satellites the company can launch. Recent launches have launched about 22 satellites per liftoff, down nearly a third from the 60 satellites SpaceX was launching during the early days of Starlink.
The new satellites are second-generation satellites and SpaceX received launch authorization from the FCC less than a year ago. They are more powerful and therefore larger and heavier than the previous ones, limiting the Falcon 9’s ability to accommodate a large number of satellites in a single payload fairing.
The dangers facing the space fleet
Satellites in orbit or in space have to face various hazards that can damage them or put them out of service. SpaceX faced one of them in February 2022, when a solar flare damaged at least 40 of the satellites.
SpaceX confirmed that the heat from the solar flare increased the atmospheric density and prevented the satellites from maintaining their trajectory.
However, the company may have to accelerate its launches if the data from the satellite tracking website satellitemap.space is accurate. This website records the total number of Starlink satellites launched, the number of operational satellites, inactive satellites and burned satellites.
It shows that, as of July 15, 353 Starlink satellites had burned up in the atmosphere, and this number increased by more than 200, to 568 satellites, in the latest readings.
By way of comparison, only 248 satellites had burned earlier this year, so the number destroyed in the last two months is higher than in the first seven months of the year.
A few weeks after the Starlink satellites fell victim to a solar flare, SpaceX shared in considerable detail the measures it takes to ensure the sustainability of the satellites.
He noted that the satellites have functions such as “ducking,” which allows them to retract solar panels in the event of a collision. SpaceX added that the satellites’ low orbit reduces their chances of contaminating the Earth’s orbit, as they burn up in the atmosphere rather than just orbiting the Earth for years before losing altitude due to gravity.
SpaceX regularly submits updates on the health of its constellation to the FCC, but does so semi-annually, so it is unlikely that data from satellites that have burned up since July will be available soon.
Its soon-to-be rival Kuiper, a subsidiary of Amazon, wants to launch its experimental satellites soon, hence Elon Musk wants to make sure he has the first satellite internet position by 2030, just at the beginning of a new decade.