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Starlink vital for Ukraine, but why is it so controversial?

Published October 14, 2022last updated February 13, 2024

Ukraine has relied on Starlink internet service since Russia's invasion in 2022. But how does Starlink work? And why is Elon Musk's SpaceX satellite network so controversial?

A long-time exposure of Space X satellites streaking across a starry night sky
SpaceX's Starlink program provides satellite internet to over 40 countriesImage: Mariana Suarez/AFP

Elon Musk's SpaceX started providing Ukraine free access to its Starlink internet service shortly after Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022.

The strategic benefits were clear: Skylink would provide internet access to the Ukrainian people and military after Russia had disrupted internet connections.

The technology has been instrumental in guiding Ukraine’s drone strikes on Russian tanks and positions.

But according to Ukraine's intelligence services, Russian soldiers have been using the technology for months in the territories they occupy. That would mean Russia was circumventing sanctions by importing products via third parties.

Starlink's operator and the Russian government have both denied the allegations.

SpaceX, which owns Starlink, says it is not engaged in business with the Russian government or the country's military. The company said in a statement that if it discovered Starlink terminals were being deployed by unauthorized parties, it would investigate and potentially disable the terminal.

The Kremlin said that Starlink terminals were neither certified for use in Russia, nor had they been officially delivered to the country, and that it was therefore impossible for them to be in use.    

An image of what a Starlink satellite network might look like seen from space
Since 2019, space company SpaceX has launched around 3,000 satellites into low Earth orbitImage: Science Photo Library/imago images

How does Starlink work?

The Starlink program supplies internet to regions with sparse telecommunications infrastructure, like at sea, in remote rural areas, or in regions where government restrict internet access.

Starlink provides Internet access by transporting data via light, similar to a fiber optic cable. This transfer is facilitated through a network of small satellites that communicate with designated ground receivers.

SpaceX has around 3,000 satellites in low Earth orbit, a section of space below an altitude of 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from the Earth’s surface. The satellites share an orbit with the Hubble space telescope and the International Space Station.

SpaceX began launching Starlink satellites in 2019. The company said it plans to expand the network to up to 12,000 satellites, with a possible extension to 42,000.

Like other satellite internet services, several components are needed on the ground and in the sky to provide internet access through Starlink. 

First, in order to connect devices like cellphones and computers to nearby satellites, a receiver device is needed on the ground. 

That device independently connects the receiving dish, which resembles a TV satellite dish, with an available satellite and the internet connection is established.

Is Starlink worth it for private users?

Starlink is not the first service to offer satellite-supported internet, but it does have some advantages over its competitors. Starlink satellites orbit the Earth at an altitude of 328 to 614 kilometers, significantly lower than their competition. HughesNet, one of Starlink's main competitors, orbits the earth at an altitude of 35,000 kilometers.

Its low orbit allows Starlink's data to travel ten times quicker than that of HughesNet.

Elon Musk gestures on a dark stage
Will Elon Musk eventually sell the private Starlink project to the highest bidder?Image: JIM WATSON/AFP

So far, Starlink is only available in 40 countries, which include parts of the US and Canada, central and southern Europe, parts of Latin America, and southern Australia. In other words, many areas for which Starlink was originally intended still do not have complete coverage.

This could be partly due to the fact that Starlink's satellite internet is very expensive. The receiver alone costs $600 (€620) while monthly usage fee is another $110.

Satellite internet is hardly worthwhile in regions with good or satisfactory network coverage, unless someone frequently travels by boat or motor home and wants a powerful, permanent internet connection in remote regions.

Why is the Starlink program so controversial?

Fast internet for everyone everywhere sounds promising at first. But Starlink satellite internet is controversial.

The provision of Starlink to Ukraine took place as a public agreement between Musk and Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation, via the online message platform X (formerly Twitter) — in other words, without any public debate or government oversight. 

There are also concerns over what would happen if Musk sold the private Starlink project to the highest bidder after completion. What would happen if totalitarian states or private companies with even less government oversight than SpaceX gain control over this network?

Starlink plays an important role for Ukraine in its war with Russia, which is entering its third year.

But Ukraine and SpaceX have had their differences. One such disagreement came about when SpaceX boss Elon Musk claimed to have prevented a Ukrainian attack on a Russian fleet in the Black Sea by refusing to activate Starlink terminals around the Crimean peninsula. 

A computer-generated image of space debris, closely clustered around Earth
A computer generated image representing the locations, but not relative sizes, of space debris. The dense cloud in the center are in low Earth orbit (LEO)Image: gemeinfrei

Satellite crowding and space debris

There are also concerns that SpaceX is "crowding" our orbit with private satellites. The first Sputnik satellite was launched into space in 1957, and some 8,500 satellite launches have followed since. The Starlink network is expected to include 42,000 satellites in the coming years, which experts worry will overcrowd our orbit, putting other satellites at risk and hindering the ability of astronomers to make observations from Earth.

Starlink satellites are already being blamed for near-collisions with other satellites due to overcrowding in the low Earth orbit region, prompting experts to warn of the possibilities of domino-like pile-ups in space if the crowding continues. Satellites are programmed to automatically change their trajectories to avoid possible collisions, which can trigger chain reactions when other satellites react to the shift in direction.

Another problem is the comparatively short lifespan of Musk’s Starlink satellites, which stop working after about five years. Instead of returning to Earth once they cease functioning, they remain in space, causing a continued buildup of space debris.

Some old satellites burn up when reentering Earth's atmosphere, but new satellites must be constantly launched into space to avoid gaps in the network.

This article was originally published in German.