Starlink Moved Its Satellites 1,700 Times To Evade Russian Missile Debris

A render of an anti satellite missile. Image: Atalayar

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SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet constellation has revealed that it had to maneuver its satellites more than a thousand times after the Russian Federation launched an anti-satellite missile last year. SpaceX shared this information in a filing to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which described the status of its constellation and shared other details such as the number of satellites that were deorbited this year and other failures that the spacecraft might have experienced.

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This report was filed at the start of this month and it describes the steps that Starlink takes to ensure that its satellites are safe to orbit the Earth as soon as they are launched on the Falcon 9 rocket. The spacecraft are initially placed in a parking orbit, where their systems are checked and then once the tests are over, they are able to raise their orbits to provide Internet coverage.

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A typical mission profile sees the Starlink satellites 'park' themselves at 350 kilometers (km) in altitude and then raise the altitude later to 550 km. This allows any non-functional spacecraft to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere, which becomes difficult as their altitude increases.

SpaceX outlined that between the start of December 2021 and the end of May 2022, the company performed 6,873 maneuvers to ensure that none of its satellites are at risk of either colliding with each other or with spacecraft belonging to other operators.

These were higher than the actions it would have had to take had Starlink chosen to adhere to industry standards. This is due to the fact that SpaceX conducts the maneuvers when there is a collision probability of 0.00001 whereas the industry follows a standard of 0.0001.

A typical journey for a Starlink satellite after its launch according to SpaceX. Image: Starlink Conjunction Avoidance with Crewed Space Stations/Starlink GNC

As part of a list of events that prompted it to take evasive actions, SpaceX outlined that a geomagnetic storm in February 2022 and a Russian anti-satellite missile test in November 2021 prompted the company to steer its spacecraft. SpaceX had launched 49 satellites on February 3rd, and the report outlined that 38 of these had to reenter the Earth's atmosphere due to the solar storm that saw Sun particles travel at eye-popping speeds of 662 km/s.

The company explained that the storm resulted in its satellites experiencing 50% higher drag (the friction between the spacecraft and their surrounding environment) which then led to only 11 being able to reach a safe orientation to withstand the event. In order to avoid such events in the future, the Starlink satellites have received a flight software update and SpaceX is planning to improve their communications with ground stations for better control.

SpaceX also shared that due to the Russian Federation's anti satellite missile test in November, the company had to maneuver its satellites more than 1,700 times to avoid the debris cloud. The test saw Russia's direct ascent anti-satellite A-235 Nudol ballistic missile target a satellite (Kosmos 1408) in low Earth orbit (LEO) at slightly lower altitudes than the Starink satellites. This resulted in at least 1,500 pieces of debris according to State Department estimates, and a dangerously close near miss event (48 feet) between a piece of debris and a Chinese science satellite in January 2022.

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Testifying the enormous scale of the event, SpaceX reported that it has to maneuver its satellites more due to the A-235 test than any other event in history.

The 904 debris objects resulting from the Russian anti-satellite missile test as tracked. by the Space Force in January 2022. Image: JCM

Finally, SpaceX concluded the report by sharing some of the reasons that it failed to properly dispose of its satellites. According to the latest data and another report shared with the FCC in April, so far six Starlink satellites have faced these issues in 2022. Out of these, two were the result of a suspected computer failure, two saw their actuators fail, and the remaining saw a power system and attitude control system failure, each.

52 operational satellites had to be deorbited during the time period of the latest report and out of these, only five saw a complete loss of control, outlined SpaceX.

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