1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Ukraine: How Elon Musk got involved

February 28, 2022

Tech tycoon Elon Musk has indicated he will protect the internet in Ukraine and the world from the International Space Station if it crashes to Earth. But how?

Illustration of the Starlink space-based internet system
There are thousands of Starlink satellites over our heads, But they are useless without receivers known as terminals on the groundImage: Science Photo Library/imago images

This article was updated on March 1, 2022, to reflect the following developments:

Ukraine's deputy prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov acknowledged receipt of what appears to be a shipment of Starlink "terminals" in a tweet late on Monday (CET). Elon Musk replied: "You are most welcome."

The terminals are ground-based satellite receivers and transmitters that people in Ukraine need in order to access Starlink, Musk's satellite internet system.

John Scott-Railton, a senior cybersecurity researcher at the University of Toronto, then tweeted: "Good to see. But remember: if #Putin controls the air above #Ukraine, users' uplink transmissions become beacons... for airstrikes."

Scott-Railton's tweet was the first in a 15-point thread.

Now, read on for our original article:

It came amidst a series of tweets from the head of Russian space agency, Roscosmos — a lengthy thread that started late Thursday and lasted well into the weekend. SpaceX and Starlink boss Elon Musk got involved in the situation in Ukraine.

Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin was responding to sanctions that countries, among them the United States and some in Europe, have imposed on Russia in opposition to its war on Ukraine.

Those sanctions have included, on the one hand, a raft of measures — such as boycotting sporting events or moving the locations of events outside of Russia — and on the other economic threats. But they have also touched on the new territorial domain that is outer space.

'Alzheimer's sanctions': What Rogozin tweeted

This being a war, Rogozin's responses have been open to interpretation and potential misinterpretation.

He has suggested in tweets, for instance, that Europe, Asia, and the US cannot do without Russia's cooperation in space.

We've translated Rogozin's tweets, and, while we can't publish the entire thread, it's worth mentioning a few excerpts.

"Do you want to ban all countries from launching their spacecraft on Russian rockets, which are the most reliable in the world?" Rogozin asks in a numbered thread. "You've done that already."

"Do you want to destroy our cooperation on the ISS?" he writes. "You are doing that already by restricting exchange between our cosmonaut and astronaut training centers."

But it's a bit that starts off by attacking "talented businessmen" for polluting near-Earth orbit with space debris — the region where our closest communications satellites and the ISS fly — that appears to have gotten Musk directly involved:

"If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from uncontrolled deorbiting and falling on the territory of the US or Europe? [The ISS could] fall down on India or China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS doesn't fly over Russia, so all the risks are yours. Are you ready for them? So, as [Russia is] still a partner, I suggest that you do not behave as an irresponsible gamer and disavow these 'Alzheimer sanctions'. It's my friendly advice." 

Musk, whose companies include carmaker Tesla, satellite-based internet company Starlink and rocket company SpaceX (to name only the top three), retorted by tweeting an image of the SpaceX logo.

When the entrepreneur's followers on Twitter asked whether that meant SpaceX would save the ISS, Musk posted a one-word reply: "Yes."

How exactly the company would go about ensuring that the space station doesn't possibly one day crash into populated areas remains unclear. But what is clear is that Musk and other commercial space players have a vested interest in helping NASA and its partners, including Roscosmos, get it right.

Deorbiting the ISS in 2031

NASA and its current controllers in the US government — the administration led by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris — have committed the United States to ongoing ISS operations through to 2030.

In a report published by NASA in January, Russia is indeed listed as one of the lead partners. But that was also before Russian invaded Ukraine.

After 2030, space operations such as those conducted on the ISS today are slated to "transition" to the private sector. It's expected that companies like SpaceX, Axiom, Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman will build so-called Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations, with NASA's help.

The space station will then be "deorbited" — brought back to Earth in a controlled manner — and eventually come down in a region of the Pacific known as the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area (SPOUA), an area around Point Nemo.

That's where spacefaring nations tend to dump decommissioned satellites and other space junk. It is far from "uninhabited," however. As we've described in another article, SPOUA is home to under-researched, diverse and abundant marine life.


SpaceX — as a leading commercial firm that's already contracted by NASA to deliver both people and supplies to the ISS — want a central a role in protecting the future of the station.

Axiom, which is contracted to ferry the first private crew to the ISS, has already committed to building its own space station. And it wants to use the ISS and jumping off point for that venture.

But, whoever it is and no matter what they do in the future, everyone in the industry knows how hard it is to transport heavy materials into space. It's likely that at least some of these companies are hoping to salvage parts of the ISS.

So was it a threat?

That does still leave the question of whether Rogozin's comments were threats made in the context of an expanding war. But that's not for this writer to answer.

We'll yield instead to Rogozin's counterpart at the European Space Agency, Josef Aschbacher, who had only the following to say on Twitter:

"Notwithstanding the current conflict, civil space cooperation remains a bridge. ESA continues to work on all of its programmes, including on ISS & ExoMars launch campaign, in order to honour commitments with Member States & partners. We continue to monitor the evolving situation."

Rogozin duly retweeted that.

Knock-on effect for ExoMars

On Monday, ESA released an official statement concerning Ukraine and the international sanctions on Russia, saying it was "fully implementing sanctions imposed on Russia by our Member States."

ESA said: "We take note" of Roscosmos' decision to withdraw its workforce from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guyana.

That decision may affect upcoming missions as many large launches use Russian Soyuz rockets. ESA says it will use European rockets if and where appropriate.

Regarding the continuation of the ExoMars 2022 program, ESA says, "the sanctions and the wider context make a launch in 2022 very unlikely."

A second stage of ExoMars was scheduled to launch from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in September or October.

Starlink and Ukraine's internet   

On Saturday, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine, essentially challenged Musk into saving the country's internet.

"@elonmusk, while you try to colonize Mars — Russia try to occupy Ukraine!" tweeted Fedorov. "While your rockets successfully land from space — Russian rockets attack Ukrainian civil people! We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and to address sane Russians to stand."

Within 10 hours, Musk replied: "Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route."

Why do they need Starlink 'terminals'?

The somewhat obscure reference to terminals is in fact a vital one. Without sufficient terminals — basically, ground-based satellite receivers — Ukraine will be unable to use Starlink's space-based internet transmitters.

That's the same for any satellite service: You need satellite receivers on the ground to pick up and send back signals. Satellite phones, satellite TV, satellite internet — it's all the same.

But, with Russia reportedly targeting all kinds of ground-based infrastructure, it really does remain to be seen whether, or to what extent, Musk's Starlink pledge can help protect Ukraine's internet, and its access to information and free communication.

Edited by: Derrick Williams

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI and the mind, and how science touches people