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Study: Problems with Starlink reliability

January 8, 2021

By Chris Forrester

A comprehensive study of the world’s 2020 space activities from astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell (of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics) suggests that there are some questions over the in-orbit reliability of Elon Musk’s Starlink project.

The report examines and itemises the assorted SpaceX launches, each of which have been remarkably successful in their ability to place 60 or so Starlink craft into orbit. However, the analysis indicates that out of 955 placed into orbit in 2020 only 874 are still working.

McDowell’s report goes back to the first batch of 60 Starlink satellites launched and says that 46 have been de-orbited. Thirteen are still orbiting while of that 13 it would seem that 7 are not capable of manoeuvring and thus maintaining an ideal station keeping. This is not in itself totally ‘new’ news in that the batch were the very first consignment – other than the two ‘test’ satellites – and no doubt many lessons learnt. However, McDowell suggests that only 6 from that first 60-craft flight are likely to be working.

The subsequent slate of launches have done much better. For example, the study says that Launches 2-8 saw 420 satellites placed in orbit, and 7 subsequently deorbited. But 10 are not manoeuvring leaving a net 400 working.

The next set of missions (Launches 9-16) saw 473 craft placed into orbit, and 4 failed/deorbited. This leaves 469 active although one satellite is suggested as being in the process of deorbited leaving a net 468 active and working.

As a summary, McDowell suggests that his studies – which are comprehensive – shows 955 satellites launched and despite the assorted problems there are still 874 working (probably).

Ten more Starlink craft are likely to be orbited next week, while there could be another pair of Starlink missions later in January. If all are successful this will mean there are some 1000 Starlinks in orbit.

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