5
$\begingroup$

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?

$\endgroup$
11
  • $\begingroup$ I would be equally interested in the reasons for downvotes and the requests for closing. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 22:41
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ 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
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 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. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 23:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ 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
    Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 4:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @uhoh Hm, interesting, but I don't quite agree with the answers in the link you posted--they are both factually wrong (modern rifles can shoot much further than 1.8km) and I think somewhat lacking in imagination (explosive and incendiary rounds do exist at this scale). Also, the helium COPVs are rather big targets, so I don't think hitting them should be an issue for an informed shooter. Finally, even if all you end up doing is punching leaking holes into the fuel tanks, would a rocket be able to make orbit with a finger-sized hole? I'm skeptical. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Commented Dec 21, 2022 at 9:12

2 Answers 2

13
$\begingroup$

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.

$\endgroup$
9
  • $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 23:46
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @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
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 0:00
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @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
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 0:56
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Peter-ReinstateMonica if you have your own answer in mind, why not write an answer? $\endgroup$
    – Erin Anne
    Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 3:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ErinAnne I have scenarios in mind which also evolve when I evaluate answers. But the general idea is that the sheer number of satellites may make them strategically useful. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 17, 2022 at 3:33
4
$\begingroup$

None of the publicly available articles and studies mention satellites as kinetic weapons. Instead, they focus on StarLink's and, broader, SpaceX's core capabilities: The three Cs (control, command and communication) for StarLink proper, and the capabilities of SpaceX as a high-tech company and launch provider to bring dedicated military satellites into space. Military satellites developed and deployed by SpaceX could profit from an integration into the existing StarLink constellation for communication and control purposes.

SpaceX has recently (12/2022) announced an official military services arm, and there is a Chinese study proposal providing a foreign angle on the subject, however broad. I'll first present both and then end with an assessment.

StarShield

In December 2022, SpaceX announced StarShield which aims at providing a "secured satellite network for government entities". Many of the advertised services exploit SpaceX's existing technological and launch infrastructure for special payloads. The advertised general communication and control functions, on the other hand, could be performed by the existing StarLink constellation, as demonstrated in the Ukraine war.

Chinese Research Proposal

In June 2022, 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 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 of the Chinese paper

As mentioned in the beginning, 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 with planned capabilities and possible developments, and it is not always clear whether they refer to StarLink or military spacecraft integrated with StarLink.

The sensing and targeting capabilities of existing plain vanilla Starlink satellites are unclear to me. I'm especially curious about threat 3a in the paper, 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.

It is remarkable how well this article predicts the StarShield outline: Not just StarLink but the entire technological and launch infrastructure that SpaceX provides, including StarLink as one building block, are a military game changer.

Overall Assessment

  1. Using StarLink satellites as actual kinetic weapons is never considered.
  2. That StarLink, a global, low-latency communications network, is of military importance is not surprising. More interesting is its role as one puzzle piece in a "mosaic" warfare of drones, space war and surveillance, conducted by specialized military satellites using the constellation's capabilities as an integral design part. Others mention that thousands of cheap satellites, as opposed to only a few expensive military ones, are much more robust.
  3. Interesting is also the strategic importance of the entire company SpaceX as a high-tech and launch asset which can facilitate this "mosaic".
  4. The affordable satellite platform and ability for high-cadence, low-cost launches constitutes a meta threat not mentioned in the article: The Starlink satellites are to conventional military satellites what the Raspberry Pi is to a PC. It is a spaceberry, if you want.

1 The original study is here (archive.org link for posterity). 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.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.