The Strategy Behind Starlink

Apr 1, 2024
The Strategy Behind Starlink

On Saturday, SpaceX launched two back-to-back missions, only hours apart:

  • At 5:52 ET, it launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Eutelsat 36D telecommunications satellite.
  • At 9:30 ET, it launched another Falcon 9 rocket carrying 23 of its own Starlink satellites.
SpaceX, March 30, 2024 Starlink Mission
March 30, 2024 Starlink Mission | Source: SpaceX

There was even a third launch scheduled around 10:30 PM, another Starlink mission, that was delayed due to bad weather. It’s scheduled to launch today at 7:30 PM PT.

The string of successful SpaceX launches has become so frequent, they receive little coverage. 

The aerospace company has already launched 32 rockets this year, and is targeting 148, which will require an average launch every 2.5 days.

The burst of SpaceX activity reminded me about a small, quiet project that has had some major developments over the last six months.

“No One Can Hide”

I remember first reading about Starshield last October.

I read about a $70 million contract awarded by the U.S. Space Force to SpaceX…

But it wasn’t the amount that caught my eye. It was that it was a U.S. government one-year contract with very few details.

I knew that there had to be a lot more going on.

Knowing the capabilities of SpaceX’s Starlink network of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, its launch frequency, and radically cheaper economics for getting payloads into space, it felt obvious that government intelligence agencies would want to tap into the “execution machine” that SpaceX has become.

This February, SpaceX made public that it had entered into a $1.8 billion contract with a government customer in 2021. The details were classified, but it was clear that there was a much larger project at play.

And days ago, Reuters was able to confirm that that the customer behind the $1.8 billion contract is the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which is an intelligence agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, responsible for operating the reconnaissance satellites for the U.S. government.

As per the NRO, “The National Reconnaissance Office is developing the most capable, diverse, and resilient space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance system the world has ever seen.”

A far more chilling comment from an unnamed source was that “no one can hide.”

These latest developments definitely caught the attention of U.S. adversaries. After all, what country wouldn’t be intimidated by a network of hundreds of satellites in low Earth orbit — able to see everything happening on the surface of Earth in real time.

It’s the equivalent of a Panopticon of the planet.

It came as no surprise that China’s miliary and state controlled media issued warnings of the need to protect against “bigger security threats created by the U.S. government.” 

Another comment suggested that Starshield was “a challenge to global security and stability.”

It’s easy to understand why.

Starshield isn’t some science project. It’s not a grand idea that may or may not happen.

It’s already here.

SpaceX has had Starshield prototype satellites in orbit since 2020. It’s not clear how many are currently in orbit.

But with a 148 launches scheduled for this year, after a record 98 launches in 2023, the Starshield network could be operational before the end of this year.

The media believes that the Starshield network is completely separate from the consumer- and business-focused Starlink network…

However, if we understand the Starlink global network, as well as the capabilities of Starlink satellites, it’s easy to understand that these two networks are closely interlinked.

Starlink Map Realtime

The above is an accurate graphical representation of the global network of Starlink satellites, which can be seen in real time here

There are currently 5,601 orbiting Starlink satellites and an unknown amount of Starshield satellites in low Earth orbit.

Here’s the key to the Starlink/Starshield networks:

Of the 5,601 Starlink satellites, 1,269 are the Starlink version 2 satellites. And each of these satellites is equipped with an advanced intersatellite, laser-based communications system.

Interoperability SpaceX
Source: SpaceX

SpaceX has already built a real-time, space-based broadband communications network that encompasses Earth. I’ve long maintained that this has been SpaceX’s underlying goal for Starlink all along.

Starlink is the space-based equivalent of the physical terrestrial internet on Earth. But instead of fiber optic cables connecting the world, these connections happen via laser communications from satellite to satellite.

This is so powerful, because any satellite deployed with an interoperable laser communications system to Starlink can connect with the Starlink space internet.

The U.S. no longer needs to have so many ground stations located all over the world. Using its Starshield network, connected to the Starlink communications network, U.S. intelligence agencies can monitor in real-time just about any hot spot on the globe.

It’s not a surprise that China, and other adversaries, are not happy.

Star Wars

The Starshield network will become the most advanced, space-based surveillance network of Earth in history.

And while it will be primarily used for surveillance and intelligence gathering, it will also be used for military operations.

Sadly, the current U.S. government is actively engaged in conflict. “They” seem to want more of it. A network like Starshield will further enhance its capabilities to do so.

The geopolitical ramifications for the U.S. and its allies are palpable. Adversaries will be at a severe disadvantage because of the Starshield network.

China has already developed a weapon known as a Relativistic Klystron Amplifier (RKA) that can be mounted onto a satellite and used to destroy other satellites. The RKA is capable of “shooting” a 5 megawatt burst of energy, capable of taking out a satellite. This is effectively a kind of directed energy weapon.

Zapping intelligence satellites out of space. Sadly, it’s a horrible idea, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Fragments from the destruction of a satellite become hypersonic projectiles, capable of damaging other spacecraft, including space stations with critical life support systems.

But it’s not all bad.

SpaceX’s Starlink network is now sending more than 42 million gigabytes of data to Starlink customers around the world every day.

Starlink now supports more than 2.6 million customers around the world in more than 70 countries.

The best part is that the majority of the users are in locations where broadband communication was either limited or non-existent. For example, Starlink’s laser-based communications network is what enables broadband connectivity at the National Science Foundation’s camp at Allan Hills.

Allan Hills Mike Waszkiewicz for the National Science Foundation
Source: Mike Waszkiewicz for the National Science Foundation

Literally, the end of the Earth.

Whether Elon Musk intended it or not, SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Starship, Starlink, and Starshield are his insurance policy.

“They” may hate him and want him gone because of his stance on freedom of speech and the remarkable platform he has now built on X (Twitter). But they can’t live without him, either.

Not only is he needed for what he’s building today, but for the future inventions sure to come.

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