This report is part of ongoing coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Visit our dedicated page for more on this topic.
After Ukraine’s vice prime minister put out a plea to Elon Musk on Twitter, the SpaceX CEO activated his company’s Starlink service and delivered a truckload of antennae to bring Starlink satellite internet connectivity to the besieged country.
The fear is that Russia’s attack on Ukraine could disconnect the country from the rest of the world and disrupt their defense if other sources of internet are knocked out. Already, many parts of the country have experienced significant internet outages.
“In our daily lives, but also in all military contexts, connectivity is key,” says Tommaso Melodia, director of the Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things and the William Lincoln Smith Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Northeastern. “Command and control operations rely on the ability to communicate. That’s why communication systems have been a strategic resource since they’ve been invented, especially their wireless components.”
Disruptions also can impact key portions of the economy, as well as journalists’ and citizens’ abilities to broadcast what is going on in Ukraine.
But how much could Starlink help Ukraine remain connected during the Russian invasion? To understand that, News@Northeastern spoke with Melodia about how Starlink works.
What is Starlink?
Starlink is SpaceX’s bid to launch a network of small satellites into low-Earth orbit that can provide high-speed internet coverage with minimal delay to even the most remote places around the globe.
Satellites are already used in many ways to connect people on the ground, but traditional communication satellites are stationed in an orbit roughly 36,000 kilometers (approximately 22,369 miles) above the surface of the Earth, Melodia says. These low-Earth orbit satellites, or LEO satellites, operate somewhere between 500 to 2,000 kilometers (311 to 1,243 miles) above the planet’s surface.
“When satellites are closer to Earth, they can provide connectivity to a smaller area,” and it is a stronger connection, Melodia says. But with a “mega-constellation” of many of these LEO satellites, he says, “you can provide connectivity to a very broad part of the surface.” As such, this approach has the potential to bring high-speed connectivity to remote places with smaller populations where it might not make sense to lay down cables for connectivity.
“Technologies like Starlink can provide an alternative to fiber and they naturally reach areas that are not otherwise covered by fiber connectivity,” Melodia says.
What technology is on the ground?
“There’s the satellites that provide connectivity, then you need Earth stations that can connect to the satellites,” Melodia says. It’s similar to other sources of satellite connectivity. “So the way it works is that you have these large dish antennas, those antennas connect to the satellite, and then the antennas connect to something like your WiFi router at home” to provide internet to users.
It’s those dish antennas—which are specifically called “terminals” when referring to Starlink devices—that Musk sent to Ukraine.
Could this technology be a target in combat?
Connectivity generally falls into either wireless or wired connectivity, Melodia explains. But “every wireless technology, except for satellite, has to rely on the fabric of fiber deployment that exists in the country.”
Generally, he says, it’s those fiber-optic cables that are a target for attack. “The satellite component is harder to attack because you have these wireless links that go to the satellite, and the satellite can communicate to other parts of the planet, and so you can completely bypass local Ukrainian networks.”
Simply put, there are fewer physical devices to be disrupted on the ground.
“When you provide connectivity with Starlink satellites, the only real physical infrastructure that you need in the Ukrainian territory is the ground stations,” Melodia says. “Everything else is either up in the sky, or can be outside of Ukraine. So it is much harder to disrupt.”
“I don’t think that we’re at the point where they’ll try to take down satellites,” he adds. “That would also be very hard to do.”
Could Starlink connectivity change the course of the war?
Starlink is another source of connectivity for Ukraine, but not a foolproof one. It isn’t magically bringing indestructible internet access to everyone. It’s unlikely to change the outcome of the conflict, Melodia says.
But “I think it has a very practical meaning for maintaining communications all the time, but I also think it has a symbolic meaning in this specific case,” he says. “It’s saying, ‘You’re not going to be able to easily disrupt key components of the economy and communication because there’s going to be alternatives.’”