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SpaceX says up to 40 of its new Starlink satellites are falling out of orbit

SpaceX launched dozens of satellites earlier this month, and now says most of them were impacted by a geomagnetic storm.
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SpaceX launched dozens of satellites earlier this month, and now says most of them were impacted by a geomagnetic storm.

Only a fraction of the 49 satellites SpaceX launched into orbit last week survived a geomagnetic storm, the company says. As many as 40 of the Starlink satellites "will reenter or already have reentered the Earth's atmosphere," according to SpaceX.

The satellites were launched into low-Earth orbit last Thursday, with the plan of bringing them up to a higher altitude. But one day later, a strong geomagnetic storm dramatically changed conditions in the atmosphere, spoiling many of the satellites' chances of reaching their final orbit.

Citing GPS data, SpaceX says the storm "caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50 percent higher than during previous launches."

That increased drag hurt the satellites' chances of reaching their final orbit, a preliminary analysis by the company suggests. "SpaceX tried to save them, but in the end, only nine satellites are expected to survive," NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports.

The satellites that can't maintain orbit will burn up as they reenter Earth's atmosphere, "meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts hit the ground," SpaceX said.

The Starlink project intends to bring satellite-based internet connections to locations around the world, particularly in remote locations. As of last month, SpaceX had already launched more than 2,000 Starlink satellites, and it plans to double that number.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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