Apart from ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station and building a giant rocket that will take people to the moon and Mars one day, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX has another hustle that’s pretty important to its business plan: building out a satellite network that can deliver broadband internet to any and all parts of the world. That project, called Starlink, just hit a major hiccup this week.

In a blog post published Tuesday evening, SpaceX revealed that the 49 Starlink satellites launched Feb. 3 were hit by a geomagnetic storm the very next day. The resulting atmospheric drag prevented many of them from reaching their intended orbit around Earth. At least 40 of those satellites won’t make it to their destinations, and will instead be destroyed in the atmosphere as they fall back to the planet.

“Preliminary analysis show the increased drag at the low altitudes prevented the satellites from leaving safe-mode to begin orbit raising maneuvers, and up to 40 of the satellites will reenter or already have reentered the Earth’s atmosphere,” the company wrote. “The deorbiting satellites pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric reentry—meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts hit the ground. This unique situation demonstrates the great lengths the Starlink team has gone to ensure the system is on the leading edge of on-orbit debris mitigation.”

The company has over 2,000 Starlink satellites operating in orbit, so the loss of 40 satellites is quite small. SpaceX plans for its constellation to come out to at least 12,000 satellites, and has been toying with the idea of expanding it to a whopping 42,000 satellites down the road.

Much of SpaceX’s blog post is spent touting the low impact its satellites have on the skies—something that conflicts with ongoing reports over the last few years that Starlink satellites are ruining astronomy, and creating a dangerous potential for collisions with other objects in orbit.

But this is the first time the potential dangers of a geomagnetic storm have been part of the Starlink conversation. Caused by solar eruptions, geomagnetic storms aren’t always easy to predict, and it looks like SpaceX and its partners were caught off guard last week. With nearly 10,000 more satellites to launch this decade, it’s not clear yet whether SpaceX will change its tactics to be more cautious moving forward, or simply swallow the cost and continue business as usual.



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