star link | Elon Musk’s satellites in China’s crosshairs

In the event of a conflict, China must have the means to neutralize SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellites, according to a new essay by Middle Kingdom military researchers. Elon Musk has donated thousands of Starlink receivers to the Ukrainian military and is developing anti-jamming capabilities to fight Russia.

Posted on June 9

Mathieu Perreault

Mathieu Perreault
The press

“A combination of destruction methods must be adopted to prevent certain Starlink satellites from operating and destroying the constellation’s operating system. Translated by a retired American diplomat on his blog and published by various technology outlets, this essay from the Chinese magazine “Modern Defense Technology” does not surprise Kaitlyn Johnson, who has been following anti-satellite weapons for half a dozen years. Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Paranoia

“In China, the entire space program is controlled at least indirectly by the government and the military,” says Ms.I Johnson, whose most recent report was in April. “In my discussions with Chinese civilians and officials, I see that for them it is the same for SpaceX. »

They are convinced that the US military remotely guides Elon Musk’s choices.

Kaitlyn Johnson, Deputy Director and Researcher at CSIS

“It certainly isn’t, because Starlink has very limited use for the US military. It’s a very weak and inaccurate internet link,” she says.

Resilience

Would it be possible for China to paralyze Starlink? “Not destroying the satellites, there would be too many, even for the US army, says MI Johnson. We are at 2400, and there will be tens of thousands more. But there may be interference from other Chinese satellites. At the moment, Russia is blocking the Ukrainian Starlink receivers from the ground, but for that you need to be very close.

“Elon Musk also announced that he was working on anti-jamming features to help Ukraine,” she says.

The “just in time” space

In any case, the low cost of SpaceX launches makes it easy to replace destroyed satellites with Chinese missiles. The US Army is also working on a “tactical launch flexibility” program (tactically responsive launch), which is expected to receive US$150 million in funding in 2023. “The idea is to immediately replace a satellite destroyed by the enemy,” says MI Johnson.

In March, the military research and development agency DARPA ended a competition launched in 2016. None of the 18 companies selected had passed the test, which consisted of making two launches in less than two weeks – with locations, freighters and orbits revealed at the last minute. .

“The army is also working on its own constellation of small internet satellites like Starlink,” argues M.I Johnson.

Chinese capabilities

China is several years behind Starlink and SpaceX, says MI Johnson. “They have several projects for internet constellations and small launchers capable of reacting quickly, but the focus has been mainly on large satellites and large launchers. »

Starlink’s ABC

The first Starlink satellites, a project by Elon Musk announced in 2015, were launched in 2019. Internet coverage through Starlink is offered in 33 countries, and the first customers were connected in early 2021.

The Starlink satellites are in low orbit, 340 km away, and weigh just over 225 kg. This low weight allows more frequent launches, which is necessary due to the low altitude. In fact, a satellite in very low orbit dives back into Earth’s atmosphere more quickly. Each Starlink satellite has a lifespan of five years. This very low orbit also reduces communication delay, which has the advantage of improving the quality of the internet signal.

Many astronomers are concerned, however, about the interference that the tens of thousands of Starlink satellites will cause to ground-based telescope observations.

To know more

  • 400,000
    Number of Starlink customers as of May 2022

    Source: Starlink

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