When Elon Musk reportedly spoke of a “great conversation” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, minutes after declaring he could see “the entire war unfolding” through a map of activity on the small satellite constellation he owns, a senior defense official had the following reaction: “Oh dear, this is not good.”
The statement, featured in a recent New Yorker article, aptly captures the situation in which the United States government finds itself. A single man exerts considerable control over the satellite internet industry that operates in “low Earth orbit” — generally about 300 miles above Earth — even as that industry is crucial to the war effort in Ukraine. Worse still, that man is the erratic Mr. Musk. There are just shy of 8,000 satellites in the skies today; more than 4,500 of those are Starlink satellites, launched by SpaceX. The company hopes to multiply this number almost tenfold in the coming years.
Starlink is far from the first constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit and far from the first to sell to militaries. But what distinguishes the network is the amount of data it can move, as well as how quickly it can increase that capacity: SpaceX can launch satellites unprecedentedly fast and at unprecedentedly low cost thanks to the reusable rockets it has pioneered. The bigger the satellite fleet, the more versatile and effective: As a satellite flies above a terminal located on the ground, it transfers the signal to a satellite behind it, and so on, forming a chain that ensures users maintain constant access to the internet.