According to a Tweet posted by Elon Musk on the 5th of March, in reference to Starlink broadband service being jammed in Ukraine, the Tweet indicates that Musk is now going to reprioritize SpaceX’s resources to solve the jamming of the Starlink wireless broadband service. Musk will do this even if it causes him delays on other projects such as Starship and Starlink V2.
The jamming on the Starlink service is a likely result of Russian Military interference on Starlink systems hosted in Ukraine.
Jamming attacks are common threats to wireless communications and happen when a hostile device creates radio signals that disrupt communications by decreasing the Signal-to-Inference-plus-Noise ratio (SINR).
Attacks on Starlink will be quite a challenging cyber security situation for Elon Musk, as the perpetrators acting in a war environment, even if tracked, are not likely to fear the legal consequences.
To use ‘a phone jammer, GPS blocker, or other signal jamming device designed to block intentionally, jam, or interfere with authorized radio communications’ is illegal in many countries and also under U.S federal law. Fines for using jammers can mount to hundreds of thousands. ‘The use or marketing of a jammer in the United States may subject you to substantial monetary penalties, seizure of the unlawful equipment, and criminal sanctions including imprisonment.‘
Can Musk prevent signal jamming?
In another Tweet Musk says that ‘Our latest software update bypasses the jamming‘
Possible ways that a software update can help bypass a jamming attack is if the jamming device is targeting a particular frequency. The software can implement FHSS or DSSS, Frequency Hopping / Spreading Sequences of frequencies for anti-jamming purposes.
However, FHSS or DSSS, frequency distribution type of protection against jamming is flawed. It is ‘limited by a common assumption that the jammer can jam only part of the communication channels or has a limited transmit power. Unfortunately, if the jammer is broadband or has a high transmit power, they fail to provide anti-jamming communication.’
Attackers may be using a number of jamming attack methods and devices:
- Wi-Fi jammers are used to create a frequency to block Wi-Fi connections and disable devices “from connecting to 3G, 4G, GPRS, or cordless Wi-Fi networks.”
- GPS jammers are used to block satellite frequencies.
If the attackers, such as a military organization, have extensive technical resources and can transmit over a large area and able to jam multiple frequencies with different types of jammers, the situation will become more challenging.
Musk is in it for the long haul
Musk will be aware of the technological resources that SpaceX is up against, and, realistically, plans to improve the cyber defense of Starlink may be at the expense of delays to Starship and Starlink V2. Though Musk is potentially optimistic when he uses the word ‘slight delays.’
Prioritizing Starlink over Starship could mean that NASA could now be facing potential delays in services provided to its space program from SpaceX.
NASA’s Inspector General Paul Martin was already recently frustrated with delays caused by Boeing on the Artemis project. Now NASA could be facing delays from its new contractor SpaceX.
NASA had recently signed a contract with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to develop a launch system ‘to return astronauts to the Moon within the next couple of years.’
It will be interesting to observe how far this conflict sets back space exploration and Moon landing projects, with the focus of SpaceX for the time being on developing its communication network providing humanitarian communication network in Ukraine.
Other areas of space exploration have been hit by Russia no longer willing to sell rockets for space launches. Joint activities on the International Space Station have been under strain since Roscosmos Space Chief stated, ‘The US Should Fly on Broomsticks Instead of Russian Rockets.’. Musk has been very willing to offer his company SpaceX as a solution to the challenges from Russia.
The conflict ‘does not appear to affect other SpaceX initiatives, including launching additional current-generation Starlink satellites. SpaceX launched a set of 47 Starlink satellites on March 3 from the Kennedy Space Center, the third such launch in the last two weeks.‘
Other enhancements to Starlink
Ukraine under attack is short on power supplies, and Mykhailo Fedorov has appealed for help for generators to run Starlink.
Musk has responded to Tweet posted by Mykhailo Fedorov, indicating that the software update to Starlink will help reduce Starlink’s power consumption so it can be ‘powered from car cigarette lighter.’
Furthermore, the Starlink service has been ‘Mobile Roaming enabled, so phased array antenna can maintain signal while on moving vehicle.’ This will be crucial in helping people in areas where broadband has been jammed; with roaming, they may receive broadband on the move with the assistance of an antenna.
Musk is aware his efforts will rile Russia
Musk also indicates in a Tweet that he is not taking a stance in the conflict to use Starlink to censor access to information from Russia.
Starlink coverage of Ukraine is about providing humanitarian access to communications to the Ukrainian government. The latest software updates by SpaceX show that Musk is doing everything in his capabilities to facilitate a working broadband service, a necessary infrastructure in times of peace and war, without taking a political side censoring information.