Five of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation satellites are set to come burning back through Earth’s atmosphere, an unexpectedly low attrition rate following the company’s launch in late May. A total of sixty Starlink satellites launched on a Space X Falcon 9 rocket, the first steps toward Elon Musk’s company beginning a satellite broadband service that could eventually bring connectivity to historically offline regions.
The launch put a number of key technologies to the test in a way which could’ve gone dramatically wrong. Unlike the typical cuboid shape, each Starlink satellite is broad and flat. That allowed the Falcon 9 to be tightly packed with them, each designed to unfurl a solar panel as it shifts into orbit.
Initial reports suggested everything was going to plan, with all sixty of the satellites in communication with Earth. Since then, however, three have proved more troublesome. Having lost contact with SpaceX, they’ll now burn up in the atmosphere.
“Three satellites which initially communicated with the ground but are no longer in service, will passively deorbit,” a SpaceX spokesperson told Space News. Two of the functioning satellites, however, will be sacrificed intentionally. That’s because SpaceX plans to use them to demonstrate to regulators that its deorbiting system works as promised.
That reassurance to the US FCC has been a key argument of companies looking to establish constellation satellite networks. As with the designs of other projects, Starlink satellites are set up to burn completely in the atmosphere when they reach end-of-life. They also have thrusters that can reposition them in orbit, in case of potential collisions or if debris is spotted.
“Due to their design and low orbital position,” the SpaceX spokesperson confirmed, “all five deorbiting satellites will disintegrate once they enter Earth’s atmosphere in support of SpaceX’s commitment to a clean space environment.”
While 55 out of 60 satellites is undoubtedly an impressive success rate for the company’s first launch, they’re a fraction of what SpaceX actually has in mind. A total of around 12,000 satellites are planned for the constellation in total, though operations – albeit initially only in North America – are expected to start before the whole swarm is in place.
What’s likely to present an even more pressing challenge, however, is push-back from the scientific community. SpaceX has found itself forced to defend Starlink from astronomers, concerned that the constellation will be significantly brighter than was initially suggested, and as a result a potential threat to telescopes. While Musk has insisted that early brightness readings were anomalous, as the satellites moved into position, he also argued that space telescopes were the natural evolution of astronomy.