Starlink, Star Bright, Where Will You Shine Tonight?

A capricious owner of a satellite network has governments wondering.

4,500 Starlink satellites are in low Earth orbit and provide Internet service that completely covers the globe. Image: New York Times based on CelesTrak.

4,500 Starlink satellites are in low Earth orbit and provide Internet service that completely covers the globe. Image: New York Times based on CelesTrak.

Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have this wish I wish tonight.

A nursery rhyme turned into a prayer in Ukraine. A nation that has to pray to an individual to get connected to the Internet must be desperate. And on February 26, 2022, Ukraine was. Russian hackers had caused Internet blackouts in and around Ukraine by infecting thousands of its Viaset satellite Internet’s modems and routers with AcidRain malware. Ukraine’s military was suddenly without command and control of its troops. The country was defenseless.


Ukraine’s digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, posted an urgent plea directly to Elon Musk on Twitter (now X). It was 4:06 a.m. and 2:16 p.m. in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital.

By 2:33 p.m. California time (10.5 hours later), Musk replied. Starlink service had been turned on and terminals (mini ground stations with dishes) were on the way.

The total number of Starlink terminals in Ukraine is now more than 42,000. They are often the sole connection available for hospitals, schools, businesses and government agencies, including the military.

Welcome to the War

It didn’t take long for the hackers to set their sights on Starlink.

On April 19, 2022, Musk reported that Starlink was being jammed by Russians but that the attack was repelled quickly—faster than the U.S. military could have.

Musk may have been throwing shade at the U.S. military, which has been working on a low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite network for 10 years. But the ease with which hackers were able to penetrate Starlink in the first place has exposed how vulnerable a consumer communication system can be in wartime conditions.

Bakhmut, Ukraine, September 13, 2022: Starlink Internet satellite dish. Stock photo.

Bakhmut, Ukraine, September 13, 2022: Starlink Internet satellite dish. Stock photo.

Modern warfare is fought as much in the electromagnetic spectrum as it is on land, air and sea. Every radiating signal, whether it be for radio, radar or sonar is met with a countermeasure. One might say that Russia invented the electronic countermeasure (ECM) when it jammed telegraph signals between Japanese battleships in 1904 during the Russo-Japanese War.

Since then, it has been a cat-and-mouse game played by dedicated engineers and scientists who are determined to ensure their signals are unimpeded while the enemy’s are disrupted. Every detecting signal, whether it be radar, sonar or infrared, issued in war is met by a countermeasure that seeks to absorb it, let it pass through without reflecting, amplify or distort the returning signal, deflect it … or respond with some other trickery.

A CubeSat, such as a Starlink satellite, which is about the size of a dorm room refrigerator, is built for a single purpose. It has little room, power, equipment or redundant systems. It has very basic or no encryption to ward off a jamming or hacking attack. Military satellites, on the other hand, which can be as big as buses, have layers of encryption and are ruggedized. In addition, the manner in which satellites in LEO have to operate, constantly handing off signals to each other as they move overhead (unlike satellites in geostationary orbit), offers additional windows of vulnerability, said Mark Manulis, who teaches cryptography at the University of the Federal Armed Forces Munich’s Research Institute Cyber Defense, in an interview with IEEE Spectrum.  

Whose Side Are You On, Mr. Musk?

Musk’s generosity to Ukraine was not unwavering. On October 13, 2022, he tweeted that he could not support Ukraine indefinitely.

“SpaceX is not asking to recoup past expenses, but also cannot fund the existing system indefinitely *and* send several thousand more terminals that have data usage up to 100X greater than typical households. This is unreasonable,” posted Musk.

Musk asked the U.S. government to foot the bill, a total of $400 million a year.

Governments fretted about a private citizen being able to affect the outcome of wars—especially when their allegiance was uncertain.

But Musk had infuriated Ukraine by playing diplomat, suggesting a decidedly Russia-sided peace agreement that had Russian-controlled elections in occupied areas and that the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia, be recognized as Russian “as it had been since 1783.”

Using Starlink, Ukraine’s warfighters were able to get real-time data on enemy locations and launch an attack in minutes—something that can take hours using radio communications. This allowed Ukraine’s troops to reclaim land Russia had taken in its 2022 offensive. However, when the Ukrainians advanced to land Russia had taken in the previous offensive, the Ukraine army found its connection had been turned off. The counteroffensive was to proceed slowly, if at all.

Musk maintains dual citizenship, a citizen of both the United States and South Africa. With his enormous wealth and boundless innovation, he has created several market-transformative companies. One of them, SpaceX, launches rockets with satellites almost every week and has put in place a satellite network with 4,500 satellites. That’s more satellites in space than any superpower has.

A $10 Billion Gamble

Starlink took an enormous capital outlay—an estimated $10 billion. Who has that kind of money, the inclination and the will? A few countries and far fewer individuals. Jeff Bezos (the next-richest person to Musk, according to Forbes) also has plans to build a satellite network but is perhaps distracted with space tourism. His company Blue Origin has yet to put a single satellite in LOE as part of its Project Kuiper.

Has the gamble paid off? Starlink costs $600 for a receiving station and $75 per month for individuals. With 110 million subscribers and 20 percent profitability, a return on investment will take 5 years. Starlink has 1.5 million subscribers to date, according to the New York Times. More lucrative than the “remote and rural locations” stated as targets on the Starlink website are bigger fish.

“Militaries, telecom companies, airlines, cruise lines and maritime shippers have flocked to Starlink,” says the New York Times.

What Starlink charges governments or militaries is unknown.


Lucas Laursen, Satellite Signal Jamming Reaches New Lows, IEEE Spectrum, August 23, 2023.

Adam Satariano, Scott Reinhard, Cade Metz, Sheera Frenkel and Malika Khurana, Elon Musk’s Unmatched Power in the Stars, New York Times, July 28, 2023.

Patrick Howell, Russia Hacked an American Satellite Company One Hour Before the Ukraine Invasion, MIT Technology Review, May 10, 2022.