Elon Musk, the South African entrepreneur who has become the wealthiest (over $200 billion) individual on earth, acquired that wealth by being innovative and acting quickly. Such was the case when Russia invaded Ukraine before dawn on February 24th and the Ukrainian minister of digital transformation contacted Musk for help in dealing with Russian efforts to cut Ukrainian access to the Internet. Starlink officials had already been negotiating with Ukraine to provide Starlink service locally. Musk agreed to help and within four days hundreds of Starlink satellites were moved into position to provide Ukraine with high-speed Internet service using hundreds of Starlink user kits Musk sent to Ukraine. Currently about 20 percent of the initial Starlink global network satellites are in orbit. These are active over a few areas so reviewers and other volunteer users can test the system. So far it appears to be a success but Musk also has to make Starlink resistant to attacks from hostile governments, and the Russians appear to be the first ones coming after it. Musk has responded by modifying the Starlink software to deal with some of the Russian mischief while modifying the design of newly manufactured Starlink satellites to resist efforts to disrupt service. Meanwhile, Russia is seeking to sever the fiber optic cables that connect Ukraine to the global Internet and going after Internet service inside Ukraine. Starlink is on its way to becoming the first satellite communications service that can claim to be combat tested. This is always a major selling point for military gear or any equipment that is built to survive use in a combat environment.
SpaceX puts 227 kg (500 pound) Starlink satellites into orbit, but not their intended 540-kilometer-high LEO (Low Earth Orbit), but to a lower orbit of about 200 kilometers. This enables the reusable SpaceX SLV (satellite launch vehicle) to carry more satellites which reach their ultimate orbital height by using their low power electric thrusters that use small quantities of krypton gas to adjust the orientation or orbit of the satellite. If any of the satellites are defective, as if their thrusters don’t work, they will self-destruct by falling into the earth’s atmosphere and burning up. Normally the Starlink thrusters successfully get each satellite to its higher orbit and are later used to aim the satellite towards a lower orbit when that satellite breaks down or is no longer needed. Without the thrusters it would take a dead satellite a lot longer to drift lower and ultimately take the final plunge into the thicker atmosphere where it is vaporized.
The full Starlink system will consist of over 11,000 small satellites and SpaceX met its goal of having nearly 2,000 satellites in orbit by 2021. Starlink offers high-speed Internet service worldwide and is not concerned with objections by foreign nations. This is especially true when one Chinese backed network, LinkSure, which promises to provide “free wi-fi worldwide” and make money with ads and reselling user data sought to upstage Starlink. There is a major problem with LinkSure because it is subject to Chinese censorship, while Starlink is not. This is what concerns nations like China, Russia, North Korea and Iran that all seek to impose tight control over local Internet users.
Starlink was designed for users in remote areas where there was no affordable Internet service. Starlink impressed early users, including those reviewing it for various tech and consumer publications, because it worked as promised. Starlink delivered download speeds of over 50 Mbps and upload speeds of 15 or more Mpbs. Most Internet users worldwide get by with 10/5 Mpbs and high-end users expect what Starlink supplies. Currently Starlink costs $499 for the small dish used to send and receive signals and a “modem” to make the Starlink signal compatible with current computers, plus $99 a month for service. Many Chinese, Russian and Iranian Internet users have the cash and courage to use foreign satellite communications services that are not censored and StarLink is an attractive solution because of its small satellite dish, which is 110mm (four inches) wide and 479mm long, and weighs four kg (8.8 pounds. It has to be mounted outside but can be under a then non-metallic material that will conceal from the thought police.
For Russia and China, Starlink is but the latest irritation from SpaceX. China is trying to recreate the reusable boosters that make SpaceX launches so much cheaper without making their launch services even more unreliable than SpaceX. From a military point of view, Starlink is a major problem because Russia and China have been creating anti-satellite weapons that could cripple a conventional satellite communications and surveillance system. It would be much more expensive, time-consuming and uncertain to cripple an LEO network that is built around the concept of surviving major damage and continuing to operate. This makes Starlink a favorite with the new U.S. Space Force, and SpaceX is one of several commercial firms that advise the Space Force on communications security. China is going after SpaceX from many directions using bribes, intimidation, propaganda, litigation and whatnot to take down a major, unexpected, threat. Russia has not got the resources for that but supports the Chinese efforts to destroy SpaceX and Starlink.
Musk is often in trouble with hostile or overly controlling governments, like Russia, China and California. Although born and raised in South Africa, he attended college and acquired citizenship in Canada and the United States. Most countries and states in the United States are glad to have Musk operating within their borders because he creates lots of jobs and local, taxable, assets.