A research team led by Todd Humphrey of the University of Texas found a way to use SpaceX’s Starlink constellation for navigation. This could provide a backup for the current GPS satellite system.
The U.S. Army funds Humphrey’s research. It would like a backup for GPS in case it gets hacked or goes down. While the Space Force has launched new GPS satellites on SpaceX’s rockets recently, most GPS satellites have been in Earth orbit for several years.
His research team reverse-engineered signals from Starlink to stations and terminals on the ground. He says its regular beacon signals could be used for a space-based navigation system with a minimum of modification.
According to Humphrey, Starlink could provide that backup. Some SpaceX executives expressed interest at first when he presented his idea. However, Elon Musk turned it down.
Humphrey says Elon Musk told the executives, “We can’t afford any distractions.” Musk was apparently concerned about the number of LEO-based communications companies that had gone into bankruptcy in the past.
Musk’s concerns may not be unwarranted, considering that he recently made noise about spending $20 million a month on providing Starlink-based Internet service to Ukraine in the middle of Russia’s ongoing invasion. According to Musk, most of the costs involve fending off Russia’s attacks on the constellation, building hardware, and paying other telecommunications companies for gateways. In communications with the U.S. military, he said SpaceX couldn’t keep funding it.
Publicly, Elon Musk reversed course although he complained about other companies getting “billions of dollars” for similar things. However, the military said it is in talks with SpaceX to help fund it. The Pentagon has said that SpaceX’s work to make Starlink more resistant to cyberattacks and jamming is impressive.
Even with Musk’s concerns about financing, Grand View Research predicted that the GPS industry could be worth $146.4 billion a year by 2025. The market isn’t just GPS-enabled golf course rangefinders and the admittedly-sometimes-wrong Maps app on your phone. GPS is also used in road, aviation, marine, location-based services, and surveying and mapping applications.
Even though Musk wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea, Humphrey managed to plant the idea of using Starlink for navigation in his brain. It would be unsurprising if that becomes an optional add-on for Starlink’s Internet service for large vehicles like boats and RVs.
The U.S. Army could also dangle some money in front of SpaceX to implement Starlink for navigation services. SpaceX has more than 2,200 satellites in low Earth orbit – enough to provide coverage for nearly the entire planet. It’s even piloting Starlink services in Antarctica, which is about as remote as you can get on Earth.
And if SpaceX remains disinterested, well, OneWeb is already launching similar Internet satellites into orbit even if it had to use SpaceX’s rockets to get them off the ground. Amazon’s Project Kuiper is (finally) nearly ready to. The competition could give Elon Musk a little kick in the pants to get him interested in using Starlink for navigation services.