What is Starlink and why did Elon Musk send it to Ukraine?

Applying the latest technologies in connectivity, Starlink employs low orbiting satellites to enhance video calls, online gaming and other high traffic data activities that were once impossible. With speeds of between 100Mb/s to 200Mb/s and with latency as 20ms in most of its locations, Starlink hopes to open up the digital frontiers.

With the recent occurrences where signal jamming has been witnessed due to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, Starlink’s parent company, announced that the focus now is overcoming the jamming and improving cyber defense of satellites in the Ukraine. At the request of a government official after the disruption of internet services across the country, Musk sent Starlink terminals to Ukraine.

These terminals which use antennas and terminals to access broadband satellite services already arrived in the country and now the main job is keeping them online. Even though these terminals are slowly returning Ukraine to the joys of cyber space, they are vulnerable to military attacks as they are the only non-Russian communications working in most of Ukraine.

The terminals even come with a cautionary message for users. Musk asks that Starlink should only be turned on only when needed and the antenna should be placed as far as possible from populated areas; light camouflage should be applied to avoid visual detection. The use of dishes has also raised questions on the viability of this technology for long time use as it might prove cumbersome in the even of a hasty exit.

The latest batch of SpaceX arrived in orbit on a Falcon 9 Rocket; launched from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the mission released 47 new Starlink satellites. This brought the total number to over 2000 satellites in orbit so far; with plans of a mega-constellation of 12,000 satellites to provide global broadband coverage. As the conflict worsens, connectivity to the internet has deteriorated and the arrival of Starlink and their terminals was celebrated countrywide.

The deputy prime minister, Mikhailov Fedorov was on hand to receive the shipped and even tweeted pictures of the truck loads of terminals and dishes as they arrived, these terminals are not just used by civilians but also the government. The question of safety is still on everyone’s mind as evidence of satellites being used to geolocate and target enemies. Cybersecurity experts theorize that with the use of specialized planes, signal emitters can be tracked and used as beacons to target and fire artillery and everyone is advised to be careful in their use of these terminals.

Following vice Prime minister heartfelt plea to various US-based tech firms, Elon Musk sent SpaceX and Starlink into a foray to save the people of Ukraine from a looming internet blackout as many of the service providers used technology that was developed and run by the Russians. Though Starlink intervention may not be enough to support the country in case of a national blackout, its services can assist in crucial services such as supporting journalists, resistance groups and public officials who have access to the services.

The risk of using new technology in conflict areas can be misconstrued as unfamiliar communications units can be used for cloak and dagger activities and military personnel may use it as an excuse to target journalists and/or activists for interrogation on claims of espionage.

In a show of global solidarity, tech companies are engaged in dialogue on the issue of Ukraine. Even commercial satellite internet company ViaSat has joined in the fray. With limited time and resources, the people of Ukraine have received support not just in humanitarian fronts, but in technology that will be used even after the conflict ends. There are those who claim that by helping Ukraine, Musk and Starlink have chosen a side in a conflict that may test global alliances. There even those who opine that the west is getting involved in matters that do not concern them but the most of the populations are in support of all in a world that is getting smaller by the day.

The biggest issue with tech companies that are working in the Ukraine are the numerous incidences of interference by unknown groups where internet connectivity is disrupted. Viasat, has gone on to admit that partial or complete network outages are affecting clients not just in Ukraine, but other places where their European KA-SAT network services are offered. From sympathizers siding with the Russian insurgency to saboteurs with selfish interests, the continued disruption of services is spreading fear among the users.

Another issue is that as long a Putin controls the skies, user uplinks can be used as homing beacons for airstrikes; this is according to University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab project. He continues to add that Russia has had experience of hitting people by targeting satellite communications.

Power is needed to run these terminals and this leads to the need of generators not just for communications but for emergencies as Russia keeps attacking infrastructure. Musk was quoted as saying that SpaceX is in the process of creating new devices that use reduced peak power and there are plans to allow mobile roaming and the use of phased antenna so that signals can be maintained on moving vehicles.

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