China: Starlink Obsession

There’s been more hand-wringing from Chinese state-run media (I think) about how SpaceX’s Starlink is somehow more of a menace to China than the U.S. military. The latest article repeats concerns from China’s military. Each article from China on this subject is an attempt in throwing any reason past the country’s Great Firewall and see what sticks for getting people to sympathize with its situation. I’ve already provided an analysis of a few of those reasons.

Terminal Worrying

To reiterate: one of the primary reasons China’s officials publicly worry about Starlink is that some of that nation’s citizens may use it to get unfettered access to the world wide web. Some may decide to smuggle a few of the company’s user terminals into the country to have that luxury. These terminals are of interest because they are all-in-one packages containing a self-aiming antenna hooked into a hub to access the internet. It’s one of the selling points of Starlink to users in the hinterlands, such as North Dakota or Texas, and certainly could be used in other areas of the world. Moreover, that user terminal is why China isn’t worried about another operational LEO broadband provider–OneWeb–a company that uses centralized communication hubs instead of individual user terminals to provide internet access. Those are easier to control.

Starlink doesn’t appear to try to package nonsense hardware such as locked down (and inferior) wifi, VOIP, and other such upsells. All a user has to do is subscribe (which is pricey), accept delivery of the Starlink hardware (which is pricey), set up the antenna in an area with no trees (easy to do in North Dakota and Texas), set up the hub, and then surf. As long as electricity is available and satellites are in view, the internet should be accessible.

Those Starlink features cause issues for those nosy officials in China who want to know what their comrades are up to. This setup doesn’t allow for their monitoring of a citizen’s online activities, whether browsing, tweeting, publishing of news, etc. Secure and anonymous email accounts can be used with some confidence. The hardware is portable and discreet (for a satellite antenna) and may be hard to detect without radio frequency detection equipment. No official arm of China’s Communist party would ever know if someone within the realm is accessing more information than what is officially allowed.

And that’s because of Starlink’s nature: with interconnected satellites, it does not require any sort of terrestrial infrastructure in China (aside from the user terminal). Even worse for China’s Communist Party poopers, the company is based in a nation that generally provides more support than most to the notion that free speech is a “good thing.” That is also distressing, as it means that whatever pressure China attempts to bring to bear on SpaceX (considered a U.S. company with rights) will be fruitless. Instead, the U.S. government will likely commiserate about how inconvenient it is for anyone to have free speech (because who wants to be in charge of stubborn jerks with opinions?) and then tell China’s representatives to pound sand.

Threats Against Commercial Companies and Private Citizens

So, China seems to be throwing justifications for why Starlink is a military threat and noting that it needs to have plans to nullify Starlink somehow. The attitude and floated plans seem inappropriate–sort of like when Roscosmos’ Rogozin threatened Elon Musk. Both are instances where the state, China and Russia, threatens a private U.S. citizen and a private U.S. company. Yet, incredibly, the U.S. State Department hasn’t pushed back on these threats. 

And it should push back because I think China’s trying to make the case that Starlink is a U.S. military asset, which would make its satellites legitimate military targets. Just because China’s leaders say it doesn’t mean it is so, but their complaints may provide enough of an acceptable premise for other nations. Such justifications would be especially attractive to those nations attempting to protect their own space communications companies. The premise may then give China’s military enough questionable political leeway to attempt to neutralize Starlink. In addition, other space companies from other nations could be impacted by China extending its case to them as they succeed in space.

First, to be clear, I will never say it’s impossible to disrupt Starlink somehow. But I think that disrupting it takes more thought and effort than just shooting/moving down or jamming 42,000+ satellites. Considering that version one of a single Starlink satellite costs much less (estimated $200,000-$300,000) than the hardware required to take it out physically, it makes almost no sense to target them individually (Version 2 might be a different story). Using chaff or other methods that create clutter in the orbital lanes will only anger those who rely on Starlink and space in other parts of the world. That’s the thing about LEO satellites in a network–they service more than a tiny part of the world. Finally, those actions may make things more difficult politically for China attempting to take Starlink out, as nations that might otherwise sit out now feel pressure to do something.

In many ways, it would be simpler to apply a terrestrial solution, such as taking out servers at critical nodes (I don’t know if this would work), which might have a more significant impact on global communications than just worrying about Starlink. 

What will China’s leaders do whenever Amazon’s Project Kuiper starts deploying satellites? The company appears to be spending resources creating user terminals with similar characteristics to Starlink’s. Will, in China’s eyes, Jeff Bezos and Amazon suddenly also militarily align with its “barbaric expansion” if Kuipersats successfully deploy? Project Kuiper satellites may represent a worse threat because they will keep Chinese officials in the dark about citizens’ activities. Still, it could put Amazon’s store, including digital goods, in front of those citizens. Considering how many “made in China” goods are on Amazon’s storefront and infinite pages, it is a strange possibility.

A Demonstration of Rapid and Reliable Launch

I believe, however, that China’s leaders are focusing on the wrong thing. For them, Starlink is a worry because access to a generally non-communist, unmediated internet may cause citizens to think about that nation’s politics inconveniently. It’s an affront to all things dictator-friendly with so much fake news and must be dealt with. However, SpaceX has shown that the company can churn out its satellites, so it might just be able to repopulate a portion of its constellation quickly–within a day, perhaps (it might even be able to make an insurance claim). It’s already launched Starlink nearly every week for the first part of this year. SpaceX looks to be maintaining that tempo for the rest of the year.

The ability to launch frequently and quickly is the company’s greatest strength. It’s accomplishing this with a single launch vehicle family–the Falcon 9. When this article gets published, the Falcon 9 will have been launched 22, maybe 23, times. China, with its assortment of 11+ launch vehicles from its state-run China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT) and Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), has yet to launch as many as SpaceX in 2022 (China’s launch companies did beat out SpaceX in 2021). Worse for China is that SpaceX could potentially accelerate its launch cadence because of its Falcon 9 reuse. On the other hand, China will throw away resources with every launch. Could its manufacturers keep cranking out launch vehicles at an accelerated rate with no quality control issues to keep up a high launch cadence? 

More critically, however, is the sheer mass that SpaceX is deploying into orbit outpaces not just China’s efforts, but the rest of the world’s launch operators. This must be annoying, considering that China has a rocket that can lift more mass per launch to orbit than the Falcon 9. Other companies, such as the United Launch Alliance and Arianespace have rockets that can outperform the Falcon 9 mass-wise, as well. But what none can apparently do is launch these large rockets week after week. Maybe it’s because the spacecraft manufacturers can’t keep up, while the majority of the mass SpaceX is lofting is due to its Starlink deployments. 

Based on recent Starlink V2 and Starship data, the masses lifted to orbit will only become greater. Starlink V2 will have a mass around 1,250 kilograms, and is totally reliant on Starship as the deployment launcher. A SpaceX all-hands video depicted Starship deploying 54 Starlink V2’s, totaling a mass of 67.5 tons. That’s over 4X the mass of a Falcon 9 Starlink deployment.

SpaceX’s launch capability, where it can launch its project for apparently very little money per kilogram, is the strength that should worry China’s leaders. The fact that SpaceX is intelligently coupling high-capacity and rapid satellite manufacturing to quick turn-around launch is merely a demonstration for potential customers. That is the lesson that can be learned from watching SpaceX as it deploys Starlink.

More Customers for More Launch

Suppose other satellite manufacturers begin to see the value in making capable satellites quickly. They observe that the satellites they build will be launched right away (instead of sitting in warehouses for months or years). That should provide an incentive for them to rapidly manufacture satellites. In that case, things might begin to change in the U.S. space industry. The capability, though, needs to be offered by more than SpaceX. If companies such as Arianespace, Blue Origin, and ULA offer similar capabilities (even while costing more), things may change even more. If new players jump in that can outdo those companies, then that would be even better.

Amazon is betting on the former legacy companies (and Blue Origin, which behaves in a legacy way), which is why we saw contracts between those companies and Project Kuiper. Apparently, the company may be able to rapidly manufacture its Kuipersats, too, which might encourage more interest in rapid satellite manufacturing. It’s up to those launch companies to decide whether to catch failure from the jaws of success. Perhaps that’s why China’s leaders don’t appear concerned about Project Kuiper: without launch vehicles and the ability to constitute a constellation rapidly, it’s just a figment, no matter how large the contract. They may not even believe, logically basing that belief on their histories, that the other launch companies will be able to compete nearly as effectively against SpaceX.

There need to be more launch customers in the world. We don’t see that right now. Nearly all of China’s launches are driven by government and military customers (which makes its satellite worries seem–hypocritical?). Most of SpaceX’s launches are very much driven by itself. Its biggest money makers are NASA and U.S. military missions. Frankly, it’s amazing the U.S. military hasn’t quickly glommed on to SpaceX’s current capabilities. But that is because of a few things, such as its dysfunctional acquisitions process full of risk-aversion, its continued reliance on legacy satellite companies that need years (compounded with extensions) to build a single satellite, its strange encouragement to those companies to keep up that behavior, etc. That needs to change, and the U.S. space industry’s reliance on government money needs to shift away for a healthy U.S. space economy to grow.

So, sure, China’s leaders can worry about Starlink as the biggest threat to their plans. But, it’s a private commercial U.S. company. All it is doing is offering broadband connectivity to paying customers. However, it can do this in a devastatingly rapid fashion because of its launch capability. Suppose others, such as Project Kuiper, or even EULEO, could similarly field satellites quickly because more launch providers can launch rapidly (maybe inexpensively). In that case, their constellations will be the least of China’s leaders’ space worries.

But it will be fun to hear those leaders squawk about it.

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