- Jan 2023
A very interesting analysis of Starlink in context of Ukraine, how it works, advantages of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites as technology, and possible limitation. Many governance questions opened up in comments below related to space race and regulations, UN and ITU, national regulation, etc. Feel free to contribute/respond/comment. ||JovanK|| ||sorina|| ||Pavlina|| ||nikolabATdiplomacy.edu||
which may explain why the island is accelerating efforts to develop its own satellite constellation
Taiwan working on its own LEO constallation
In future, service will be possible even in places with no convenient ground stations nearby; the next generation of satellites is intended to be able to pass messages between themselves, rather than sending them back down to the nearest ground station, creating a network which could be much more unevenly tethered to the Earth.
Important future prospect, that minimises current limitations related to ground stations and their proximity!
Some countries do not want Starlink services making the internet uncontrollable, and so do not allow the company to operate within their borders.
A general regulatory challenge for internet access for developing countries - satellites going beyond borders. One can regulate the use of satellite dishes, but that's about it. Will countries look for regulations of satellite internet access through ITU for instance? (eg. Starlink can operate, but only through ground stations that are in our territory and working under our jurisdiction)
Meanwhile other launch systems are either unavailable, undersized or have yet to get up and running. American rules stop Western companies from buying launch services from China, and since the war began launch contracts with Russia have been cancelled. OneWeb, which relied on Russian launchers for its launches until this year, now uses SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and a launcher developed by India.
Space technology including launchers play important geopolitical element here. India seems to be entering the field as well. How about cosmodromes? Does EU have any option? ||nikolabATdiplomacy.edu||
fully reusable spacecraft called Starship which would be capable of launching some 400 Starlinks at a time, and thus taking the constellation from thousands of satellites to tens of thousands. The long-delayed first attempt to get a Starship out into space and back is expected this year.
Starlink initially looks at 12,000 total. Do they need even more? Estimations are that each satellite can last for 5-7 years, when it may go down and need to be replaced.
In November 2022 the EU agreed to begin developing its own low-orbit communications system, IRIS2
Another aspect of digital sovereignty is the satellite infrastructure. It is not enough using Starlink or other commercial one even if cheaper/easier... One has to have own - so EU is going for that as well. It remains to be seen if it will be a commercial or rather state driven project (or, similarly to the EU cloud - a PPP+academia option).
In 2020 China filed documents with the International Telecommunication Union, a UN body, for a 13,000-satellite constellation of its own
What role does the ITU play when it comes to satellites licenses? Indeed, it seems Starlink also filed the application back in 2014. What sort of licenses are there, how is this decided, are they mandatory? Worth exploring this important part of the ITU role. ||sorina||
And then there are the satellites themselves. America, China, India and Russia have missiles that can shoot satellites out of the sky. Again, though, using them would seem a severe escalation. It would also be a lot less useful against a constellation like Starlink than against older systems. Knocking out a single Starlink would achieve more or less nothing. If you want to damage the space-based bit of the system, you need to get rid of lots of them.
Another military advantage of LEO - since there are many, one would need to bring many of them down to make effect. Resilience effect of the internet itself, in fact (signal gets rereouted through other satellites)
Starlink satellites relay signals they receive to fairly nearby “ground stations”
Importantly, satellites only 'forward' the signal to the ground internet infrastructure - much like the mobile telecom towers do for mobile phones. Thus, user' satellite dishes communicate via satellites with 'ground stations' that are connected to the internet backbone (see illustration: https://dgtlinfra.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/How-Does-Starlink-Work-1024x576.png).
Due to satellites orbiting the earth, to be able to operate they also need ground stations in relative proximity to the used dishes (ie when a user activates the dish, and it communicates to the satellite nearby, the satellite has to have a ground station within its sight as well to be able to forward the signal). Here is an interesting live map of Starlink satelites (hexagons and white dots) and ground stations (red dots): https://satellitemap.space/?constellation=starlink&norad=53556
While dishes can be in a 'territory out of control' (eg. Ukraine, or Iran if someone smuggles it and uses), ground stations can be in nearby countries under political control/partnership. This enables full control of the internet content (e.g. content filtering or other) by friendly state/Starlink.
But, users of dishes can be prosecuted, or targeted by missiles upon using the uplink (basically whenever a dish sends something to the satellite, when it has to beam a signal upwards towards the sky - it is discoverable).
PS Very useful overview of satellites technologies and options, including Starlink: https://dgtlinfra.com/elon-musk-starlink-and-satellite-broadband/
Most satellite communications make use of big satellites which orbit up at 36,000km. Perched at such a height a satellite seems to sit still in the sky, and that vantage allows it to serve users spread across very large areas. But even if such a satellite is big, the amount of bandwidth it can allocate to each user is often quite limited. The orbits used by Starlink’s much smaller satellites are far lower: around 550km. This means that the time between a given satellite rising above the horizon and setting again is just minutes. To make sure coverage is continuous thus requires a great many satellites, which is a hassle. But because each satellite is serving only a small area the bandwidth per user can be high. And the system’s latency—the time taken for signals to get up to a satellite and back down to Earth—is much lower than for high-flying satellites. High latencies can prevent software from working as it should, says Iain Muirhead, a space researcher at the University of Manchester. With software, rather than just voice links, increasingly used for tasks like controlling artillery fire, avoiding glitches caused by high latency is a big advantage.
Useful explanation of why Starlink (and LEO for that mater) is superior to high-orbit conventional satellites:
- it is closer to the Earth thus having much smaller latency (commercial tests say 20-40ms in practice at user end, comparing to cca 0.5s for GeoStationary Orbit satellites)
- because it's so many satellites rather than a single or few, one LEO satellite can serve less people and thus provides bigger bandwidth, at level of 'broadband' (commercial tests say 50-200Mbps/10-20Mbps) It's advantage is thus primarily in number of satelites which are in tens of thousands; previously, each GSO was under a particular point on Earth and serving only those people all time.
- Since LEO orbit around Earth very fast (completing a full earth orbit in under one hour), they can possibly provide connectivity everywhere, even the poles
In September the Russian delegation to a UN working group on space security hinted that, despite its status as a nominally civilian system, Starlink might be considered a legitimate military target under international humanitarian law—which is probably a fair assessment.
Interesting - explicit discussion in UN OEWG on Reducing Space Threats whether Starlink is/could be a military target under the international law. No such discussion were ever raised in UN OEWG cyber - eg. would Starlink/ViaSat be a legitimate target of cyberattack during war (not least because Russia and fellows deny the use of cyber for militarisation/as weapon). Worth following further? ||Pavlina|| ||JovanK||
Russia’s armed forces have lots of electronic-warfare equipment that can locate, jam or spoof radio emissions. But the Starlink signals are strong compared with those from higher flying satellites, which makes jamming them harder. And the way that the dishes use sophisticated electronics to create narrow, tightly focused beams that follow satellites through the sky like invisible searchlights provides further resistance to interference.
Since Starlink is closer to users, it's signal is strong. Dishes communicate with more than one satellite, and change beams accordingly. This is hard to jam
The Starlink constellation currently consists of 3,335 active satellites; roughly half of all working satellites are Starlinks
Thus there is total cca 7000 LEO satellites in 2023, half of which is Starlink. Pace of launching is growing (see below)