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SpaceX just lost 40 satellites to a geomagnetic storm. There could be worse to come.

In turn, that could affect Starlink’s rollout speed a bit: the company will need to fly fewer satellites per launch so that everyone has enough fuel to reach higher altitudes. It also means that the shortcomings of any of the satellites will take longer to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, reducing what SpaceX considered the advantages of launching at low altitudes: this was supposed to reduce space debris as failed satellites would return to Earth more quickly. . “It’s a trade-off,” says Hugh Lewis, a satellite specialist at the University of Southampton. At 200 kilometers, Lewis says, the dead satellite will remain in orbit for “maximum days,” but that period extends to 300 kilometers and more weeks.

Managing these mega-constellations can also be a problem. While we have previously experienced solar maximum with satellites in orbit, now the number of orbits is unprecedented. By 2025, there could be more than 10,000, not just from SpaceX but from other ventures like Amazon’s Project Kuiper and the UK’s OneWeb. Future storms can repeatedly push and pull these satellites, changing their position and putting them at risk of collision.

“We’re talking about kilometers in terms of altitude,” says Lewis. “As more satellites go into orbit, our ability to manage that complexity will be limited. At some point, we will see some more serious events than just re-launching 40 satellites.

Amazon said its constellations, and the design of the satellites themselves, were designed to counteract this increased solar activity but did not provide specific details. SpaceX and OneWeb did not respond to a request for comment.

This latest phenomenon shows how carefully all mega-constellation operators need to plan for the effects of solar activity, as any collision could add thousands of pieces of space debris that could affect our ability to safely use Earth’s orbit. “I think they’ve made it a factor in their plans,” McDowell said. “Maybe they missed this particular issue, but they’ll have to run their model, one hope.”

The certainty is that we are going into unfamiliar waters. “The region [of orbit] What we are talking about is very valuable and important, “says Lewis.” Everyone needs to do better by using foresight to anticipate these issues. “

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