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London Tech Week

How is Elon Musk’s Starlink helping Ukraine in tackling Russia?

Starlink Ukraine
Image credits: bodkins/Pixabay

Just days after Russia’s invasion began in late February, Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov requested Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk to activate Starlink satellites for use in Ukraine. 

Musk tweeted his response saying, “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.” Soon after, several terminals and powerful batteries arrived in Ukraine.

In a talk at the California Institute of Technology, Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, said they worked for six weeks to get landing rights or government approval to provide services in the country, even before Mykhailo Fedorov’s tweet. 

“We had been working on trying to get permission — landing rights — to lay down capacity in Ukraine,” she said, describing it as a part of the company’s broader expansion of Starlink services in Europe and elsewhere. “We had been working with the Ukrainians for a month and a half or so.”

She also said they had been waiting for a letter formally granting landing rights, but it never came before Russian forces invaded the country on Feb. 24.

“They tweeted at Elon and so we turned it on,” she said. “That was our permission. That was the letter from the minister. It was a tweet.”

With this move, Ukrainians can use the Starlink kits (antenna, a mounting tripod, and a Wi-Fi router) to connect directly to SpaceX’s network in orbit. 

Starlink is a satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX, providing satellite Internet access coverage. The primary purpose of Starlink is to bring internet access to people globally, with no nook and corner spared. It is ideally suited for areas where connectivity has been unreliable or completely unavailable. 

The company provides high-speed, low-latency broadband internet through advanced satellites in a Low Earth Orbit (LEO). As per the company’s claims, users can expect to see download speeds between 100 Mb/s and 200 Mb/s and latency as low as 20ms in most locations

Currently, it is operational in 31 countries on Earth and aims to extend to the whole world. 2,335 Starlinks have been launched, with 2,112 still in orbit.

Of those, 1,575 are in the licensed operational shells, and 447 are undergoing orbit raising towards those shells as of March 2022, reports Wikipedia. However, members of the scientific community have raised concerns about the impact of LEO satellites on night visibility. 

However, Starlink has assured that it will reduce satellite brightness, minimise the impact on astronomy, and protect the natural night sky. 

According to a report from The Telegraph, Starlink’s satellite system keeps the army connected despite power outages and helps forces target Russian tanks and positions.

Additionally, the satellite system is helping Ukraine’s Aerorozvidka (Aerial Reconnaissance) with drone attacks to target Russian tanks and positions.

Further, Starlink has become the most popular app download in Ukraine, enabling millions of people to stay updated about what is happening in the war. 

In fact, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is using Starlink satellites to give speeches to the nation and global leaders. 

In an interview with The Times, an officer in the Aerorozvidka unit says, “We use Starlink equipment and connect the drone team with our artillery team,” he said. “If we use a drone with thermal vision at night, the drone must connect through Starlink to the artillery guy and create target acquisition.”

Musk vs Russia?

During the course, many raised concerns about geolocating the equipment during operation. However, Musk tweeted, “Turn on Starlink only when needed and place antenna away as far away from people as possible.”

“Place light camouflage over the antenna to avoid visual detection,” Musk added. 

On top of that, Russians used jammers to block internet access from space. To this, Musk replied in his tweet saying, “Some Starlink terminals near conflict areas were being jammed for several hours at a time. Our latest software update bypasses the jamming.”

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, on state-funded Russian broadcaster RT said, “When Russia implements its highest national interests on the territory of Ukraine, Elon Musk appears with his Starlink, which was previously declared purely civilian.” 

Talking about using satellites for warfare, Nicholas Weaver, a security researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, in an interview with CNN Business said, “If an adversary has a specialized plane aloft, it can detect [a satellite] signal and home in on it.” 

“It isn’t necessarily easy, but the Russians have a lot of practice in tracking various signal emitters in Syria and responding. Starlink may work for the moment, but anyone setting a [Starlink] dish up in Ukraine needs to consider it a potential giant target,” he concludes. 

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