What is Starlink? Elon Musk’s satellite-internet service explained - and is it active in Ukraine?
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted a personal appeal to Musk
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Starlink, a satellite-internet service maintained by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, is now active in Ukraine.
This comes after Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov made a personal appeal to Musk over twitter and asked him to provide the country with internet coverage amidst the Russian invasion.
Here is everything you need to know about Starlink and its use in Ukraine.
What is Starlink?
Starlink is a satellite internet service. As of February 2022, there are 2,091 Starlink satellites: together, they form a network (referred to as a satellite internet constellation) which provides most of the Earth with internet coverage.
The purpose of Starlink is to offer low-latency internet access. “Internet latency” refers to the length of time between input commands and output response – more simply, it refers to internet lag, and how quickly internet access is delivered.
Currently, Starlink offers internet in 29 countries (Ukraine being the 29th). Though it’s theoretically possible for the satellites to offer internet coverage to most of the planet, in practical terms this coverage is limited by different licensing and contractual agreements.
How does it work?
The satellites orbit the Earth in a LEO (or Low Earth Orbit – in this case around 550 km/340 mi). They form a network with one another, and communicate with ground-based terminals to deliver internet.
These terminals are around the size of a pizza box, and contain different radio wave antennae. To access the Starlink satellites, these terminals can be mounted anywhere with a view of the sky – for example, the roof of a building.
In his reply to Fedorov, Musk said that “terminals [are] en route”.
The Starlink satellites have proven controversial among astronomers and astronauts. They’ve been criticised both for light pollution interfering with research, and for the increase in space debris they represent.
There are worries that the satellites pose increased risk of collision, which may lead to something called the Kessler effect – triggering a domino effect where the space debris in low Earth orbit keeps crashing into each other, which would make LEO essentially impossible to use for other satellites.
In early February 2022, 49 new Starlink satellites were launched; they encountered a geomagnetic storm, which caused as many as 40 of the satellites to crash back to Earth a week later.
Who is Elon Musk and what is SpaceX?
Elon Musk is a South African billionaire, currently estimated to be the richest person in the world. Musk is from a very wealthy family - his father was part-owner of an Emerald mine in Zambia – and made further money from early internet startups.
In 1999, Musk co-founded X.com, one of the first online banks; that company later merged with the online bank Confinity, which had created Paypal. Musk was removed from the board of the merged company in 2000, but retained his shares in the company – the company went on to focus on Paypal, and Musk later received a significant payout when eBay purchased PayPal in 2002.
Musk went on to found SpaceX (or Space Exploration Technologies Corp) in 2002. The company was founded in pursuit of colonisation of Mars, a particular interest of Musk’s, and projects like Starlink are intended to fund these missions.
It’s recently been alleged that Elon Musk’s Neuralink project – which is developing an implant intended to allow brains to communicate directly with computers – engaged in animal abuse. An early version of the chip was tested on 23 monkeys, 15 of which are said to have died after a period of intense suffering.
Meanwhile, Musk’s company Tesla is also being sued for operating “a racially segregated workplace”. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing “found evidence that Tesla’s Fremont factory is a racially segregated workplace where Black workers are subjected to racial slurs and discriminated against in job assignments, discipline, pay and promotion”.
Both the Neuralink company and Tesla have dismissed these claims.
What did Ukraine’s deputy PM say to Musk on twitter?
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister (or, more properly, the First Vice Prime Minister) Mykhailo Fedorov, 31, tweeted a personal plea to Elon Musk.
It read: “Elon Musk, while you try to colonise Mars – Russia tries to occupy Ukraine! 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.”
Musk replied a little over ten hours later to say “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.”
Fedorov – also Ukraine’s digital minister – thanked Musk, and offered an additional “special thanks” to Ukraine’s ambassador to the US, Oksana Markarova, “for swift decisions related to authorisation and certification that allowed us to activate Starlink in Ukraine”.
Ukraine’s official twitter account replied “thanx, appreciate it”.
Is Starlink active in Ukraine?
According to Musk, yes. The SpaceX founder has offered further terminals to Ukraine, which will increase the availability of Starlink coverage.
This is the second time Starlink has been made available as part of emergency relief efforts. Earlier in February 2022, Starlink was made available in Tonga in response to the 2022 Hunga Tonga eruption and tsunami. Internet coverage will be provided in Tonga by Starlink for six months.
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