Billionaire SpaceX founder Elon Musk is determined to build his sprawling Starlink satellite internet network, but, naturally, he’s faced some setbacks along the way.
Back in February, 38 of Musk’s Starlink satellites were annihilated by a “destruction event,” per Newsweek, and these incidents are expected to get worse in the near term, peaking in 2025.
What happened, exactly?
An explosion on the surface of the sun caused a wave of energetic solar particles to wash over our planet, heating up the Earth’s atmosphere and spiking the density of the minute amounts of air at the level of the Starlink satellites’ orbit. The satellites began to sink and, ultimately, burned up at thousands of miles per hour.
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The Sun unleashing a spectacular solar flare and coronal mass ejection, captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft.
Credit: NASA/GSFC pic.twitter.com/3cICiw999w
— Wonder of Science (@wonderofscience) May 3, 2022
A study published by researchers in China and the U.S. in August revealed the economic toll: tens of millions of dollars. Still, in the grand scheme of things, the loss was a minor bump in the road for SpaceX, which has more than 3,000 Starlink satellites in orbit and plans to launch approximately 40,000 more.
But the company can also expect similar challenges ahead, as the sun’s activity, and this accompanying space weather, escalates in keeping with its 11-year solar cycle — set to peak in the summer of 2025.
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Musk built the potential for such setbacks into his Starlink strategy, though, releasing the satellites at a low altitude so they’re destroyed quickly in the instance of failure and don’t get stuck in space.