For all the turmoil surrounding billionaire Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, his SpaceX remains a success story - especially at the Pentagon, where its Starlink satellite communications system is winning new praise as a potential way to reach U.S. troops in the distant reaches of the Arctic.
The Arctic is increasingly seen by the U.S. as contested territory with Russia and China. But its rough climate and remote latitudes limit communications through existing military satellites. That’s where the portable Starlink units from Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies come in as a possible solution.
“We have started testing high-rate connectivity to very remote Arctic bases,” Brian Beal, principal aerospace engineer with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Strategic Development and Experimentation office, said in a statement. At one such base, he said, data rates using Starlink improved almost 30-fold over previous capabilities.
Musk’s $44 billion purchase of Twitter has spawned controversies, from his tweet before the midterm election urging votes for Republicans to his mass firings at the social network. President Joe Biden said last week that Musk’s “cooperation and/or technical relationships with other countries is worthy of being looked at,” although he said he wasn’t suggesting whether Musk is “doing anything inappropriate.”
But Musk’s provocative public pronouncements seem to be mostly taken in stride at the Pentagon, where he has pushed his way into winning a substantial share of sensitive national security satellite launches for SpaceX over an alliance of top defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
His Falcon Heavy rocket last month launched its first national security mission. Next month SpaceX is scheduled to launch the initial two of four planned missile-tracking satellites it was awarded by the Air Force’s Space Development Agency.
Pentagon spokespersons mostly fended off requests for comment when Musk briefly threatened to stop footing the bill for operation of Starlink terminals that have become crucial for Ukrainian troops and civilians fighting Russia’s invasion.
Nor have Musk’s latest controversies touched the Arctic tests of Starlink, with results that Beal said will be evaluated later by the U.S. Space Force for potential contracts amid an increasing focus on the frigid Arctic expanse that caps the Earth.
The service has been piggybacking off of Starlink commercial services as they become available in the polar region, Beal said.
More than half the Arctic coastline belongs to Russia, which is increasingly isolated from its northern neighbors. That’s turned the region into a growing security concern for the U.S., which has a foothold through Alaska, and for NATO. Russia set up a Northern Command in 2014 and has opened hundreds of new and former Soviet military sites in the Arctic. It’s also developing new nuclear submarines for Arctic operations, including Arcturus, which can deploy underwater drones and hypersonic missiles.
So far, Starlink is demonstrating “very high-rate communications” and is easy to set up, Beal said.
“You can imagine an Army, Air Force or Navy unit deployed to a remote location that doesn’t have the cell-phone service niceties and very quickly have communications at high-rates that an airman can set up in 10 minutes - that’s a great capability to have,” he said.
Todd Harrison, a space analyst with Metrea Strategic Insights, said Starlink is an example of “where commercial space capabilities have pulled ahead of military space capabilities.”
SpaceX didn’t respond to an email request for comment on the Arctic testing. Starlink’s first customers were mostly people living in rural areas in Canada and the U.S. Since then, it has grown to more than 400,000 subscribers.
In addition to Starlink, the Pentagon is looking at a system from London-based OneWeb, although Beal said he doesn’t consider them to be in competition.
Key tests of Starlink in the Arctic are underway, Beal said last Thursday. He said the Pentagon has deployed 50 terminals in locations across the region and is collecting data on throughput, latency and other metrics. The tests will continue for six to 12 months as airmen use the terminals.
“We demonstrated Starlink on a moving ground vehicle in Alaska in just the last couple weeks,” he said, referring to one of the two most demanding tests of military capability. An equally difficult Arctic demonstration of an airborne U.S. aircraft receiving Starlink signals will occur in the spring, he said.
“We’ll be looking for any unexpected impacts of the harsh environment on the system’s performance,” he said.
The service has been piggybacking off of Starlink commercial services as they become available in the polar region, Beal said. SpaceX’s Starlink satellites in polar orbit have grown from about 20 in May to about 235 today, with plans to launch 240 more in the next six months, Beal said.
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Bloomberg’s Danielle Bochove contributed to this report.