A geomagnetic storm triggered by a large burst of radiation from the sun has disabled least 40 of the 49 satellites newly launched by SpaceX as part of its Starlink internet communications network, the company said.
The incident was believed to mark the largest collective loss of satellites stemming from a single geomagnetic event, and was unique in the way it unfolded, Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell said on Wednesday.
The company's announcement, posted on its website on Tuesday, said the satellites were stricken last Friday, Feb. 4, a day after they were launched to a preliminary "low-deployment" orbit about 130 miles (210 km) above Earth.
SpaceX said it routinely deploys its satellites to such low orbits at first so they can quickly and safely be allowed to fall back toward Earth and incinerate on re-entry if a malfunction is detected during initial system checkouts.
But SpaceX left unclear whether the company had anticipated the severity of the extreme space weather conditions it faced, fueled by a solar storm days earlier, when it sent its latest batch of 49 satellites aloft.