Russia Hints It Could Shoot Down SpaceX Starlink Satellites

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The number of satellites orbiting Earth has increased dramatically in recent years, but Russia says some of those objects could become military targets if the US and its allies don’t change course. The veiled threat doesn’t call out Elon Musk’s SpaceX by name, but Russian officials can only be referring to Starlink, which has provided connectivity in Ukraine during the Russian invasion. But is this just more saber-rattling from a country attempting to save face? 

Early in the invasion, SpaceX pledged to activate Starlink service in Ukraine, and it came through. Starlink has provided an important line of communication for Ukraine, as well as helping to control military assets like drones. Attacking Starlink’s constellation is not outside Russia’s abilities, but it would be a significant escalation of tensions with the west. Russia tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile in late 2021, turning a derelict satellite into a cloud of dangerous debris. NASA and other space agencies condemned the test because of the increased danger to the International Space Station. Even small fragments can cause serious damage in orbit, which is one reason the US is seeking to ban orbital weapon tests.  

According to Konstantin Vorontsov of the Russian Foreign Ministry, “quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation.” Moscow has been shamed on the world stage following its botched invasion of Ukraine, which was supposed to be a “special operation” that wrapped up in a few days. Instead, Ukraine forced Russia to abandon its siege of Kyiv and continues to push its troops back toward the border. 

The American broomstick is flying, Dimon. What now?

A single Falcon 9 launch can add up to 60 nodes to the Starlink network.

Even if Russia threw caution to the wind and started picking off Starlink satellites, it’s unlikely it could do much to damage the network. There are over 2,000 of them in orbit, and every Falcon 9 launch can add up to 60 more. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has noted that it can launch new satellites faster than Russia (or anyone else) can shoot them down. And SpaceX is just the first to reach this point. The reusable Falcon 9 rocket makes it much cheaper to get satellites into orbit, but reusable launch vehicles will eventually become commonplace. This could lead to a new generation of ASAT technology, but the current method of shooting a missile at a single satellite is little more than a nuisance. 

Currently, Starlink service covers a wide swath of North America and Europe, plus some areas of South America and Australia. Coverage is expected to expand dramatically in the next year or two as SpaceX begins deploying larger Starlink v2 satellites — easier to blow up? Maybe, but SpaceX will still be launching faster than anyone can shoot them down. Starlink v2 is reliant on launching the delayed Starship rocket, an orbital test of which is expected later this year.

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