News hardware Starlink: this unofficial use of SpaceX satellites does not please Elon Musk at all
If the Starlink system is essentially intended to offer a very high speed Internet connection to the whole planet, using satellites in low orbit, researchers have decided to use this solution differently. But this circumvention of the SpaceX solution does not please Elon Musk.
If Elon Musk has a tendency to experiment with just about anything that comes to mind when it comes to new technologies, which may as well be a not very agile humanoid robot or a futuristic armored car, sometimes the billionaire aims right the first time. This was the case with Starlink, its network of satellites deployed in low orbit, attached to its aerospace company SpaceX.
Starlink’s proposal is simple: allow anyone to connect to the Internet anywhere in the world, including where there was no other network accessible before the arrival of this solution. While Starlink is frowned upon by many astronomers and scientists, who believe sending tens of thousands of satellites into low orbit poses a risk to skywatching, it’s hard to deny that this technology also has the potential to change the lives of millions of people who are still deprived of a stable connection to this day.
A use of Starlink that could have pushed SpaceX into bankruptcy
Starlink is gradually evolving in its offer. One of the most recent novelties concerns Starlink RV, a portable terminal that can be used while traveling, and even in a moving vehicle. Approved by the FCC in the United States, this solution is particularly offered to yacht owners who are willing to pay 5000 euros per month to be connected to the Internet even in the middle of the ocean.
But, surprising as it may seem, there are useful aspects of Starlink that Elon Musk decided to leave out. Among them are the possibility of using this satellite network as a GPS. However, SpaceX engineers presented a project highlighting this possibility in 2020, and it was even appreciated by the company’s leaders. However, it was Elon Musk himself who vetoed : “Elon explained to the leaders that all other communication networks in low Earth orbit had gone bankrupt” says Todd Humphreysa University of Texas researcher whose work is funded by the US military. “SpaceX had to focus entirely on avoiding bankruptcy, so no distractions were allowed”.
Turning Starlink into GPS is possible
Todd Humphreys wasn’t intimidated by Elon Musk’s speech. And for good reason: he is not an employee of SpaceX. He therefore decided touse publicly available information from Starlink to develop a GPS system that uses data from SpaceX satellites. Indeed, all the details of the movements of the Starlink devices are published in real time, in order to avoid collisions in low orbit.
Humphreys’ team uses this information with a receiver responsible for capturing the signals sent by each Starlink satellite. This data makes it possible to determine their position relative to each other. By doing so, the researchers are not hacking into any Starlink data or misappropriating any information from a legal standpoint. According to Todd Humphreys, the solution thus developed displays an accuracy of about 30 meters.
A future solution? SpaceX seems dubious
The researcher believes that if SpaceX decides to collaborate concretely for the development of this solution, in particular by providing more precise data, accuracy could be reduced to less than one meter. This would make it competitive with traditional GPS, which today remains very sensitive to jamming methods.
For now, the aerospace company seems to be turning a deaf ear. It is possible that Elon Musk is not ready to take the risk of developing an expensive technology with uncertain profitability. Recently, the billionaire notably pointed out that SpaceX’s support for the Ukrainian army meant a significant shortfall for the firm., which provides free Starlink kits to the heart of the conflict. However, Elon Musk being known to change his mind regularlya reversal of the situation would not be surprising concerning this new use of its satellites.