It’s been more than a month since SpaceX launched its first batch of 60 webcast satellites for the company’s massive Starlink initiative, and all but three of the satellites appear to be working as planned. Initially, SpaceX was able to communicate with all 60 spacecraft after launch, but eventually lost communication with three outliers. The non-communicative trio will continue to orbit Earth for a time, but will eventually be pulled back to our planet by gravity, where they will burn up in the atmosphere.
The rest of the 57 satellites have been operating as planned, according to the company. Forty-five of the satellites have raised their heights with their onboard thrusters and have reached their planned final orbits of 342 miles (550 kilometers) upward. Five of the satellites are still in the middle of raising their orbits, and another five are undergoing additional systems checks before raising their orbits. As for the remaining two satellites, SpaceX intentionally fired its onboard thrusters with the goal of crashing them into the planet’s atmosphere. There was nothing wrong with those satellites, the company just wanted to test the exorbitant process.
That means five total satellites are heading for a burning grave. “Due to their design and low orbital position, the five orbiting satellites will disintegrate once they enter Earth’s atmosphere in support of SpaceX’s commitment to a clean space environment,” SpaceX said in a statement.
“The five deorbiting satellites will disintegrate once they enter Earth’s atmosphere.”
These 60 satellites, launched on May 23, were the first of nearly 12,000 satellites SpaceX plans to put into orbit around Earth. The company received permission from the Federal Communications Commission to launch a batch of 4,409 satellites, followed by another constellation of 7,518. The spacecraft are intended to fly in a relatively low orbit over the planet and transmit Internet coverage to the ground below, providing service to all areas of the world. The idea is to provide coverage to rural or remote areas, where placing fiber is not an option, as well as providing another option for Internet service to customers.
The company will soon start using its new Starlink constellation to stream videos and play high-bandwidth video games, to see how much lag time there is in service. But the company says it will also implement changes to future spacecraft based on this launch. “Although we are satisfied with the performance of the satellites thus far, SpaceX will continue to advance the operational capabilities of the satellites to inform future iterations,” SpaceX said in a statement.
The fact that three of the SpaceX Starlink satellites stopped communication may raise further concern among the space community. Some experts are already concerned about how the constellation will contribute to the space debris problem. Currently, there are 2,000 operational satellites in orbit around Earth, according to the latest figures from the European Space Agency, and the completed Starlink constellation will dramatically add to that number. Such a boost could increase the risk of satellite collisions in space, creating more debris that could further threaten other spacecraft. A study by NASA argued that 99 percent of all satellites in these massive constellations must be removed from orbit within five years to keep the risk of collisions in space low. And if a company cannot communicate with a satellite, it cannot control the vehicle and take it out of orbit.
“SpaceX will continue to advance the operational capabilities of the satellites to inform future iterations.”
However, SpaceX says it has implemented several design and system changes to ensure that the company does not contaminate the space environment. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the Starlink spacecraft uses data from the US Air Force on the positions of other satellites in space, to zoom out and avoid collisions with nearby objects. And in April, the FCC approved SpaceX’s request to fly its first batch of Starlink satellites closer to Earth, so that they would be pulled down and out of orbit more quickly.
Astronomy experts are also concerned. Light and radio astronomers have raised concerns about how the constellation Starlink could affect observations of the Universe. When the first 60 satellites were launched, the spacecraft turned out to be much brighter in the sky than anticipated, and scientists warned that light reflected off these vehicles could spoil their long-exposure images of the sky. In addition, radio astronomers also suspected that the frequencies at which these satellites operate could intersect with the frequencies that scientists use to study distant objects in space.
SpaceX says it has been working with major astronomy groups to discover ways to mitigate any potential impacts on space science. And major astronomy groups have released statements saying they have been in proactive conversations with the company.
Meanwhile, it is unclear when the next launch of the Starlink satellites will occur. Musk said the company will continue to launch batches of 60 satellites at a time, with a goal of getting between 1,000 and 2,000 spacecraft each year. According to Musk, it takes approximately 24 launches to reach global internet coverage.