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Starlink aims at having tens of thousands of satellites in orbit in a few years. At any given point in time there will be a large number of satellites close by any inhabited places, including the launch sites of the space faring nations.

The Starlink satellites are maneuverable and can slightly alter their orbits.

  • Could this satellite cloud be used to deny access to space? Launches typically follow a predictable protocol along a timeline because of fueling constraints, weather and probably other factors. Would it be possible to mass-target a launch window and destroy any vehicle passing through Starlink's orbital altitude?
  • Could the satellites be used as kinetic weapons to destroy other satellites in equal or lower orbits? After all, they already unintentionally cause an increasing number of close encounters that must be managed.
  • Could the satellites' radio equipment be used to blind or impede electronic installations? Even if each satellite's signal strength is low, targeting specific enemy satellites or even Earth-bound stations with thousands of Starlink satellites at the same time may cause significant interference.

If Starlink has this strategic potential: Is there anything known about backdoor access by the U.S. military to Starlink satellites?

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  • $\begingroup$ I would be equally interested in the reasons for downvotes and the requests for closing. $\endgroup$ Aug 16 at 22:41
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    $\begingroup$ I'm guessing it's because this reads like a conspiracy theory. Anyone who's paying attention to Starlink knows just how little maneuvering ability they've got, and just how big space is. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Aug 16 at 22:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark Not much maneuvering is necessary; the scenario I envision doesn't involve real-time hunts but small corrections that dramatically increase a collision probability. Basically the opposite of what one usually does. As I said, the collision threat has already increased, while everybody is trying to minimize it. $\endgroup$ Aug 16 at 23:49
  • $\begingroup$ I voted to leave this open, as I believe they are legitimate questions that are not obvious to all, and for which there are factual answers to be had. $\endgroup$
    – Dan Hanson
    Aug 17 at 3:02
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    $\begingroup$ I think you have a misconception about the launch: typical launches have a "launch window", because of all the factors you mention the precise time of the launch is unknown until the rocket ignites its engines. Moving about 7,8 km/s in LEO a potential "kinetic attack star link" would miss the starting rocket by about 8 km for every second delay on the launch pad. In real live it is in deed a huge problem to ensure CA-services for launchers because of his characteristic. $\endgroup$
    – CallMeTom
    Aug 18 at 4:55

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I'm going to restrict my answer to only the question of "can Starlink satellites be used as kinetic weapons." I'm pretty sure the answer is "not in any practical sense."

The ground-based measurements that lead to collision avoidance maneuvers are not sufficiently precise to use for targeting--conjunction analysis is probabilistic, and avoidance actions are taken when close approaches are possible. Those avoidance actions are small maneuvers done well in advance of the predicted conjunction.

There is no evidence that Starlink satellites have any kind of onboard sensing that would allow them to do deliberate targeting of their own. Even if they did, their capabilities would probably be restricted to relatively slow-speed attempts, like a nominal rendezvous scenario. Trying to do a truly high-speed encounter (i.e. coming from an differently-inclined orbit or attempting to strike a vehicle during launch) is a scenario a lot like midcourse-intercepting a ballistic missile, involving actual targeting systems and high thrust.

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  • $\begingroup$ The scenario could involve thousands of near encounters which each have a probability in the order of magnitude of 1/1000, not requiring actual targeting. For many purposes the threat to neutralize a satellite in a time frame of a few weeks or months would be already a significant one. Evasion is made difficult (already, unintentionally) when the Starlink satellites make course corrections. Approximate targeting thrust-less satellites doesn't need onboard sensing; the trajectory is roughly known. $\endgroup$ Aug 16 at 23:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Peter-ReinstateMonica, the Starlink satellites use very-low-thrust Hall-effect thrusters for maneuvering. Anything worth targeting is likely to have chemical or cold-gas thrusters, which produce hundreds or thousands of times as much thrust. Trying to hit something with a Starlink satellite would be very similar to a river barge trying to ram a speedboat. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Aug 17 at 0:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark Since barges, positioned adequately to block the course the speedboat needs to take around a bend in the river, are very effective denials of access, your argument seems to support my idea. $\endgroup$ Aug 17 at 0:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Peter-ReinstateMonica, did I say "river"? I meant "ocean". At the scales involved, it would be like trying to deny access to the ocean using two dozen barges. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Aug 17 at 0:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Peter-ReinstateMonica if you have your own answer in mind, why not write an answer? $\endgroup$
    – Erin Anne
    Aug 17 at 3:06
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In June, a Chinese research group led by Ren Yuan-zhen published a study1 — or rather: a study proposal — about strategic risks posed by Starlink as perceived from a mainland Chinese perspective. They identified a number of strategic threats. I'm paraphrasing the Chinese paper piped through google translate and add a minimal assessment after that. I'm looking forward to comments regarding the details.

Summary of the threats outlined in the Chinese paper

1. Global, continuous, no-dead-zone broadband capacity

  • More stable and reliable communication capabilities for combat units. The improved real-time communication between units and command and control improves what may be referred to as C4ISR, that is, the traditional Command and Control plus communication, plus information acquisition and processing.
  • High-definition pictures and live video, as demonstrated by military tests with C-12 military reconnaissance aircraft. The achieved data rate of around 600 MBit/s is a jump by two orders of magnitude.

Obviously, better real-time information and control capabilities will enhance the battlefield capabilities.

2. Continuous surveillance capability

This includes the capability to track moving ground targets.

3a. Sensing, detecting, tracking, targeting

Starlink satellites are able to detect and track other satellites as well as other objects in space. The Starlink constellation is to become part of the "next-generation [U.S.] defense space architecture".

3b. "Target suppression"

Potentially equipped with robotic arms, the maneuverable Starlink satellites could be used to dispose targets.

4. Outlook

Starlink could become part of a "mosaic warfare" concept: A variety of more autonomous, smaller, potentially unmanned assets are deployed as required by the developing situation which is monitored in real-time. In this scenario, with its high communication load and control flexibility, Starlink plays a communication and reconnaissance role.

Assessment

The study focuses on the core Starlink function, communication. The gist of my question, which aimed more at unexpected uses, is only addressed cursorily ("target suppression") as a future option. Additionally, the military use for reconnaissance/sensing/targeting can be considered a "lateral" use of the original Starlink capabilities.

The article mixes existing capabilities with planned capabilities and possible developments. Some of the points the authors make are true today, especially the role a global high-speed low-latency satellite network could play in warfare. Other threats are not directly concerning the existing Starlink constellation but concern military satellites launched by SpaceX that would potentially inter-operate with Starlink, e.g. vehicles with robotic arms. On the other hand: If you are willing to sacrifice one of your 30,000 Starlink satellites you don't really need the arm.

The sensing and targeting capabilities of existing plain vanilla Starlink satellites are unclear to me. I'm especially curious about threat 3a, detecting and tracking of other satellites. Because of the ability to communicate with each other via laser which needs precise aiming, some tracking of other Starlink satellites must be built-in to newer plain vanilla Starlink satellites.

Specifically for missile tracking though — certainly a demanding task —, the U.S. military has commissioned four dedicated military satellites based on the existing Starlink platform.

The latter actually is a meta threat not mentioned in the article: The Starlink satellites can be seen as a low-cost satellite development platform — the spaceberry, if you want. Pair this with the enormous, cheap-ish launch capacities of SpaceX and you have the possibility to develop and deploy new, adapted military satellite constellations quickly and for a fraction of the previous cost.


1 The original study is here. An English translation (perhaps mechanical) can be found in this blog, about halfway down, Ctrl-F "Modern Defense Technology Volume 50, Issue 2, 2022".

It received fairly wide media coverage, for example at businessinsider.

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