The Starlink satellite network, with about 5,000 satellites currently in orbit, lost 212 of these between mid-July and mid-September. Starlink satellites are designed with a service life of at least five years. At this point the satellites are supposed to move into a lower orbit that will soon degrade and the satellite will fall into the atmosphere and burn up. This is now a standard feature with new satellites, to avoid crowding orbital space with derelict satellites that no longer function. This is important because American firm SpaceX is the first of many companies worldwide to put a large number of small communications satellites into orbit. Within a decade there are to be over 100,000 of these satellites in orbit.
Currently SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) has over 5.000 Starlink satellites in orbit. The number was achieved with the August 26 use of a SpaceX Falcon 9 SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicle) carrying 22 Starlink satellites, raising the Starlink count to 5,005. Ultimately, SpaceX wants to have 30,000 Starlink satellites in orbit. This would provide the entire planet with low-cost, high-speed Internet access via a multiple-satellite ISP (Internet Service Provider) system. Users will need a small ground station consisting of a small satellite dish and a special modem, costing $600 with service costing $90 a month. In large quantities these stations cost about $100 each. Some nations will not allow their citizens to access Starlink while others seek to regulate what portions of the Internet users can access. This has been the experience of major competitors like ViaSat and HughesNet. When all the Starlink satellites are in orbit, Starlink will be the planet’s major provider of satellite Internet service. Starlink needs about ten million monthly fee paying customers to be profitable. SpaceX turned profitable in early 2023.
The original gen1 Starlink system was designed to expand to over 40,000 satellites if demand by paying customers was large enough to justify and pay for it. Starlink gen2 is designed to provide so much more customer bandwidth (data transmission) that far fewer Starlink satellites will be needed. That could be up to 90 percent less than gen1. Gen2 is designed to operate more efficiently over countries that outlaw Starlink as an ISP. Nearly half the Internet users on the planet live in countries that heavily censor Internet use. Starlink makes it much more difficult to censor Internet users. Originally designed to provide affordable high-speed Internet use to those in remote areas, Starlink discovered it had gained a lot of new customer interest because of its experience in Ukraine.
The gen2 satellites are described as nearly ten times more capable than the gen1 (original) Starlink satellites. Gen2 are designed to work with gen1 satellites and gradually replace them. Gen1 birds are designed to last for about seven years. At that point the satellite gradually loses altitude until it burns up reentering the atmosphere. The true capabilities of gen2 won’t be known until some of them are in orbit. Gen1 satellites proved more effective than expected but the list of suggested improvements indicated that a larger gen2 satellite would be the way to go. Eventually this will mean fewer Starlink satellites in orbit but there will still be thousands of them.
The main function of Starlink is to provide cheaper, more powerful and globally available access to the Internet or any other communications network that can pay for the use of the Starlink network. That includes military users that are friendly to Starlink and not considered a threat. The threat nations include China, Russia and several smaller countries like Iran, North Korea and Cuba that are hostile to Internet access they cannot control. China estimates that Starlink is able to increase the speed and throughput of military communications over a hundred times what it is now.
Starlink is not the only multiple-satellite ISP system. There are similar efforts underway in several countries, including Russia and China. These efforts have fallen far behind Starlink in terms of numbers and capabilities. Starlink is unique in that it was the first to enter service and quickly proved it could do what it was designed to do. That included quickly adapting to the needs of military users. This was demonstrated in Ukraine where Starlink was activated over Ukraine days after Russia invaded in February 2022. The first of thousands of free user kits were delivered in less than a week. Currently there are over 100,000 user kits in Ukraine, most of them serving as small, local ISPs by adding an inexpensive router. As long as the Ukraine War continues, SpaceX and the U.S. government will pay for the service in Ukraine.
In 2022 SpaceX announced a new subsidiary called Starshield with enhanced versions of Starlink technology on larger earth-imaging satellites with sensors to provide whatever sensing capabilities a national security customer wants. This includes photos, real-time video and all manner of data which U.S. military-grade satellite sensors can collect. Potential users include the NSA, CIA and equivalent agencies of American allies.
While Starlink has achieved market dominance in space-based communications for personal and commercial users, that largely consists of high-speed Internet datalinks and inexpensive ground links that can be stationary or moving in a vehicle or ship. Starshield plans to do that same with classified data government agencies collect. Starshield satellites are designed to accept many types of capabilities provided by user-supplied modules designed for compatibility with the Starshield interface. Starshield data and control links use much more robust encryption. Starshield will use larger SpaceX SLVs (satellite launch vehicles) to put new Starshield satellites in orbit. Currently Russia is actively seeking ways to disrupt Starlink service. These attacks are nothing new, because government and military users of space-based communications systems have long worked on improving security.
Starshield is organized to take business away from commercial firms like Blacksky and Maxtar that already have billions of dollars in government contracts to provide persistent imaging, including real-time video, of specific areas on earth. The United States provides these specialized imaging services to Ukraine and that provides satellite data on Russian forces superior to what the Russians can provide to their own troops.
Ukrainians were impressed by the potential for Starlink and rapidly came up with new uses, some of them military. This gave Starlink a realistic test under very adverse conditions. So far this has been a success even though Russia, apparently with some help from China, is still seeking ways to shut down or disrupt Starlink.
Another advantage of Starlink is the rapidity of upgrades or modifications to deal with problems, including Russian efforts to jam or disrupt performance in Ukraine. Not only were the Russians unable to disable Starlink, but found its encrypted signals far superior to communications Russian troops had to use in Ukraine. Worse for the Russians was the Ukrainian ability to rapidly integrate Starlink with Ukrainian communications and fire control systems.
Before Gen2 satellites were ready, SpaceX pointed out that it could put additional Starlink satellites into orbit faster and more cheaply than Russia or anyone else could destroy them. This capability was part of the Starlink design that not only allowed satellite and user software to be quickly updated, but new Starlink satellites often had new features added to improve performance and that included more resistance to hacking and jamming. Complaints that Starlink satellites would become so numerous that they would be a hazard for other satellites are unproven and even less likely once the gen2 satellites are operating. Starlink operates in LEO (low earth orbit) between 300 and 600 kilometers from earth, where there is already a lot of space junk too small to quickly fall back into the atmosphere and burn up. Any plans to destroy a lot of Starlink satellites would make the situation worse without shutting down Starlink services. If left alone the gen1 and gen2 Starlink satellites are designed to burn themselves up in the atmosphere when no longer operational.
China sees Starlink as a serious threat to its current government Internet censorship and control over the population, as well as the political reliability of its military. That’s no speculation because it’s already happening, often live on TV, in Ukraine. China has not yet come up with a workable plan to disrupt or destroy Starlink, and considers Starlink a major obstacle to China eventually becoming the most powerful military force on the planet. That was supposed to happen before 2050. With Starlink it may take longer.
Starshield also aims to provide users with a dominant position in space-based sensing. Starshield is meant to be cheaper and more responsive than any existing competitor in providing a wider array of earth sensing capabilities. SpaceX has not revealed the schedule for lifting Starshield satellites into orbit, and some may already be there testing the services Starshield will provide. Starshield activities will be less public than Starlink, which is how intelligence agencies like it.