Starlink: New Sovereign of Low-earth Orbit

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    Starlink: New Sovereign of Low-earth Orbit 

    Syllabus: GS3/ Science & Technology

    In Context

    •  Starlink’s importance in Ukraine has hammered in how high-speed satellite Internet access is quickly becoming the most valuable strategic resource in a conflict or war-stricken region. 

    About the Starlink Project

    • Starlink is a satellite constellation that comprises thousands of small satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO). 
    • SpaceX first began sending them into space in 2019.  
      • SpaceX is an American aerospace manufacturer and space transport services company founded by Elon Musk.
    • Currently, there are more than 3,000 of these satellites that send internet signals to designated ground receivers.
    • Unlike traditional internet providers, Starlink doesn’t require any ground infrastructure. 
    • One just needs to have a small satellite dish or a receiver device to access high-speed internet, much like satellite TV.

    Significance of Starlink

    • Simple idea behind Starlink: Governments or companies would send up small satellites into space that would beam high-speed Internet to users with the help of ground stations or terminals back on earth.
      • Elon Musk post-2019, placed better satellites closer to earth, and in a connected constellation could bring satellite internet access on par with the average broadband experience.
    • Starlink’s hegemony: Today, Musk’s Starlink service is the undisputed king of the section of space called low-earth orbit (LEO). 
      • Of the roughly 7,500 active satellites that orbit Earth today, more than half are Starlink satellites.
      • There are a handful of competitors, some backed by governments:  Viasat, OneWeb, Avanti, SES, Immarsaat, and Iridium. But none of them come close to offering the convenience, speed or affordability of Starlink.
    • Accessibility in combat environment: According to the report, what makes Starlink easily accessible even in the combat environment is the fact that the dishes and terminals used for providing the internet are portable and can be rigged to run off a car battery
      • In an area which has an unreliable supply of electricity, this is a huge advantage.
      • Apart from this, because Starlink consists of thousands of satellites that orbit around the Earth and aren’t too far from the ground, they are able to provide high bandwidth without many glitches.
        • This has also made drone warfare much easier.

    Challenges

    • Russia Ukraine – Operations controlled by company: After the Russia-Ukraine war broke out in 2022, fibre network lines and cell towers were the first pieces of infrastructure to be destroyed, rendering Starlink as the lifeblood of Ukraine’s communication network.
      • When Internet connectivity is deployed in a region, the nature of the technology is such that its operations aren’t controlled by the user, but by the company. 
      • So when the Ukrainian government wanted to switch on/off access in a particular area.
        • For example, if a piece of territory had fallen into Russian hands and a few Starlink dishes or terminals had been lost – it had to call up Starlink each and every time
    • Lack of regulations & Starlink’s monopoly: Traditional infrastructure works on a public-utility principle. Toll-road operators don’t get to decide who uses their roads. 
      • Similarly, telecom companies don’t get to decide whether a particular region deserves no internet access because its inhabitants might use it for unsavoury purposes. 
      • Yet satellite internet companies get to insert themselves in key debates because of how the technology works and the lack of regulation.
        • For instance, Musk reportedly had refused Ukraine’s request in 2022 to provide Starlink connectivity near Crimea.
    • Issues of space debris: The satellites of Starlink work only for five years and once they are dysfunctional, they remain in space and contribute to space debris.
      • SpaceX’s ambitious plan of launching 42,000 more satellites in the next few years might lead to overcrowding in our orbit, which in turn would impede astronomers from making observations from Earth.

    Suggestions

    • Need to end monopoly: The obvious solution is that we need more LEO satellite constellations – government, private or some combination of the two – that provide Internet access.
    • Need of government-specific projects: Rival firm OneWeb, whose biggest shareholders are Bharti Airtel’s holding company and the U.K. government, were forced to abort a launch in Russia after Putin demanded the satellites not be used against Moscow. 
      • OneWeb took a $230 million hit after Russia refused to return its satellites too. And this is why more government-specific projects are needed. 

    Way ahead

    • In 2022, the European Union earmarked EUR 2.4 billion to set up a “sovereign” satellite constellation to be rolled out by 2027. 
    • China has its own plans to deploy a 13,000-satellite LEO mega constellation to rival Starlink.
    • Starlink’s disputes with Ukraine and other countries should serve as a wake-up call of how the power of the stars is quickly being concentrated in the hands of just one man, and a worrying lesson for any country or government looking to depend on Musk for connectivity.

    Daily Mains Question

    [Q] Starlink’s disputes with Ukraine and other countries should serve as a wake-up call of how the power of the stars is quickly being concentrated in the hands of just one organization. Analyse.