SpaceX’s satellite internet constellation Starlink has reportedly lost over 200 satellites during the period of July 18th to September 18th 2023. Data compiled on the satellite tracking site satellitemap.space shows a major spike in satellite burn-ups beginning in July.
It is unclear whether the significant increase in de-orbiting satellites was scheduled or the result of failures. SpaceX has not yet provided details on the reasons behind the losses.
Satellites Burning Up After Reaching End of Life Span
Starlink satellites are designed to safely burn up in Earth’s atmosphere at the end of their functional lifespan, which is approximately 5 years. This is standard practice for low Earth orbit satellites to reduce space debris.
However, experts have questioned whether the number of reported burn-ups seems unusually high. SpaceX has launched over 5,000 Starlink satellites since 2019, with around 4,500 still believed to be operational.
Solar Storms Can Also Damage Satellites
Satellites can also be impacted by solar activity and electromagnetic storms. Strong solar flares have occurred this summer as the Sun enters a more active phase of its 11-year cycle.
In February 2022, SpaceX reported losing 40 Starlink satellites shortly after launch due to a geomagnetic storm. Factoring in launch costs, damages totaled an estimated $100 million.
Also Read: What Is Starlink?
The recent spike in de-orbiting satellites could potentially be tied to the heightened space weather activity. But without confirmation from SpaceX, the exact causes remain uncertain.
The accelerating pace of Starlink satellite burn-ups demonstrates the challenges of operating large constellations in low Earth orbit. SpaceX must maintain and replace satellites frequently to sustain coverage as devices reach end of lifespan.