Recently, a cybersecurity researcher demonstrated a vulnerability in the Starlink network using a $25 device made from off-the-shelf parts. What challenges does Starlink face as an internet service, what has the researcher demonstrated and does this spell disaster for Starlink?
What challenges does Starlink face as an internet service?
Over the past two decades, modern life has rapidly become dependent on internet connectivity, whether receiving mail, paying bills or changing personal data. This rapid addiction puts a strain on infrastructure, which is why internet service providers have rushed to install fiber optic cables in every home.
However, not all houses are located in densely populated areas, and ISPs around the world have been reluctant to improve their connection quality due to the extraordinarily high costs involved. While government initiatives have focused on trying to provide subsidies to these homes, there are still millions of people with extremely poor internet access.
Starlink (created by SpaceX) was launched in an attempt to solve this problem by providing internet connectivity via satellites. While satellite internet has been around for decades, the difference between Starlink and other satellite internet services is that Starlink orbits very close to the ground (550KM), which helps reduce latency, and the use of thousands of satellites in orbit overcomes the challenges of signal reliability. .
However, there are those who think that Starlink may be more of a gimmick than an actually feasible product. For starters, the biggest challenge Starlink faces is the number of satellites needed to make the system work for everyone on Earth. Without going into details (which can be found here), some basic calculations show that the total cost of putting 10,000 Starlink systems into orbit would be around $15 billion, and that these satellites would need to be replaced every ten years.
Additionally, the 10,000 satellite target would only serve 300,000 customers who would need to be evenly spaced to not overload a satellite, and a $99 monthly subscription does not generate enough revenue to cover operational costs.
Second, Starlink presents many problems for astronomers because their high reflectivity, low altitude, and need for heating controls make them highly visible at night. As such, long-exposure photography can quickly show lines in images from orbit of Starlink satellites.
Third, putting thousands of satellites into orbit increases the risk of Kessler syndrome, a chain reaction of satellite destruction whereby an initial collision creates debris that leads to additional collisions. Considering that Starlink satellites have shown some degree of failure (about 2%), it is likely that one of them could trigger such an event unless protective measures can be put in place ( such as satellite capture systems).
Starlink Hacker Researcher Using Homemade $25 Device
If the challenges faced by Starlink couldn’t get any worse, a cybersecurity researcher recently announced how they were able to break into the network with the use of a $25 homemade device.
Lennert Wouters, researcher of Belgian origin, fabricated a circuit board capable of injecting voltage spikes into a Starlink terminal and cause a terminal glitch, which gives the hacker root access. From there, the researcher then demonstrated how root access can then be used to explore the entire Starlink network.
The use of off-the-shelf parts makes the attack particularly difficult to combat because anyone with a technical background can make their own device. Worse still, there is currently no known workaround as this hack relies on confusing hardware that cannot be updated. Thus, Starlink terminals remain vulnerable to this hardware attack, and only future versions of the terminal can be protected against this attack.
But this is not the only case where Starlink has been attacked. To help Ukraine defend against Russian aggression, Starlink provided services across the country to help maintain connectivity, but Russian cyberattacks have repeatedly targeted Starlink. While Elon Musk said their attacks proved futile, the recent revelation of voltage spikes could pose problems for the network.
Does this vulnerability spell disaster for Starlink?
While the security vulnerabilities presented by the Belgian cybersecurity researcher demonstrate the new hardware challenges facing Starlink, Starlink’s business model and its effects on astronomy are far more important to its eventual success. Even the most basic calculations that tilt heavily in favor of Starlinks do not show that Starlink is an economically viable business modeland the introduction of technologies such as 5G and the increased use of fiber optics could make Starlink obsolete very quickly.
Additionally, the fact that Starlink terminals require large amounts of power (around 100W) means that it can never be used in remote IoT applications without some sort of base station. which then connects the Starlink connection to a low power network such as LoRa. This high power requirement limits Starlink’s potential for permanent installations (such as homes and offices), while Internet satellites in geostationary orbit can be physically larger, serve more simultaneous connections, and have a significantly reduced cost compared to at Starlink.
Is Starlink viable as a network technology? If the technology driving Starlink does not change quickly to embrace new technologies such as inter-satellite laser communication and dramatically increased satellite-to-earth bandwidth, then Starlink could fail before the end of the decade.