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SpaceX to discard bad batch of 100 Starlinks, citing common issue and risk of losing control

Renders of first generation Starlink satellites in orbit

SpaceX has launched 5,828 Starlink satellites to date. It is by far the largest satellite constellation in Earth’s orbit; however, given the scale and the enormous amount of advanced communication devices, even with a very low failure rate, there will be quite a lot of malfunctioning units flying around.

SpaceX wants to minimize this downside by proactively discarding a portion of its satellites:

“In the coming weeks and months, SpaceX will perform controlled descents of approximately 100 additional early-version 1 Starlink satellites. These satellites are currently maneuverable and serving users effectively, but the Starlink team identified a common issue in this small population of satellites that could increase the probability of failure in the future.”

The company specifies that the “lowering operation” of satellites will take approximately six months for most of the vehicles. SpaceX will also update other satellite operators on the trajectory of these devices and will take responsibility for any avoidance maneuvers if needed.

SpaceX communication is emphasizing its commitment to space sustainability. Understandably so, as the company has been under the scrutiny of regulators, experts, and the public for a long time.

Discarding satellites proactively is an important decision. As SpaceX points out, its satellites are placed in low Earth orbit (LEO) below the altitude of 600 kilometers, which means the atmospheric drag brings unresponsive devices down within five years – an industry standard. However, proactive deorbiting significantly shortens this period, preventing the risk of collisions with other spacecraft and making room for new, hopefully even more reliable replacements.

To this date, SpaceX has conducted a controlled deorbit on 406 Starlink satellites. Only 17 vehicles are non-maneuverable, although the company emphasizes they are “well-tracked” to prevent collision with other objects in orbit – not great, not terrible.

Even though the current “bad batch” is still operational, the company says the action would have no impact on the customer experience: “SpaceX has the capacity to build up to 55 satellites per week and launch more than 200 satellites per month, which allows us to continually improve our system and make it more resilient.”

With the currently deployed second generation of Starlink, SpaceX is not only improving its reliability but also adding new capabilities. Just in January, the company successfully tested direct communication between smartphones and Starlink satellites for the first time.

However, Elon Musk is not the only one with plans for smartphones communicating through the space infrastructure. Google, AT&T, and Vodafone only recently invested in Texas-headquartered company AST SpaceMobile, focused on building the world’s first space-based cellular broadband network.

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