- 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||
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.
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/
Cyber-attacks like the one aimed at Ukraine’s legacy satellite system on February 24th are one possibility. So far, though, similar sallies against Starlink appear to have been ineffective, in part thanks to SpaceX’s ability to quickly update the system’s software. Dave Tremper, director of electronic warfare for the Office of the Secretary of Defence, has said the speed of the software response he witnessed to one attack was “eye-watering”.
Why is Starlink better at cybersecurity than ViaSat? 'Ability to quickly update system's software' shouldn't be different with traditional satellites. Yet, Starlink has indeed not been breached/compromised (and one can bet that Russians put lots of energy on that) Worth exploring further.
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||