Starlink Tests Service in Polar Regions

One of Starlink’s big selling points is that it can reach regions that don’t have reliable access to affordable high-speed Internet. Now it aims to connect one of the most remote regions on Earth: Antarctica.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a successful test of Starlink at McMurdo Station, a logistics station serving its US Antarctic Problem (USAP).

The NSF has not revealed financial terms of the deal. SpaceX also has deals with the U.S. Air Force and NASA to provide connectivity.

USAP relies on a variety of satellites operated by NASA, the Department of Defense, Iridium, and AirBus as a backup for communications. The NASA Tracking and Data Relay (TDRS) constellation provides connectivity for phone calls and web browsing through the S Band.

The NSF can use its Ku-Band connection to transmit scientific data. USAP conducts a wide variety of research in the fields of astrophysics, earth sciences, glaciology, and ocean and atmospheric sciences. Antarctica is is one of the best places on Earth for astronomical observations due to its distance from most artificial light pollution sources.

However, USAP has to share TDRS bandwidth with NASA programs like the International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope, as well as NASA contractors like SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance (ULA).

“NASA makes a great effort to ensure South Pole Station is granted adequate access time to conduct science and operational communications, but cannot always provide a seamless and consistent access schedule,” says USAP.

Starlink could help fill in the gap with the more than 2,000 satellites it has in orbit. It has demonstrated an ability to resist jamming and can provide speeds that are nearly comparable to a “landline” broadband connection. Beta testers reported that its terminals perform well in frigid weather due to an internal heating unit. One Starlink user reported that it does come with the risk of attracting outdoor cats – maybe not such a concern on Antarctica, though there is the possibility that McMurdo Station’s terminals might get a visit from a curious penguin.

A researcher earned a bug bounty by demonstrating a vulnerability in Starlink terminals, but it requires physical access to the terminal and is unlikely to affect any other terminals – meaning that, on Antarctica, any messing with a Starlink terminal is likely to be an inside job.

With a dedicated Starlink connection, the NSF’s McMurdo Station can send and receive data over the Internet at any time instead of waiting for scheduled bandwidth with other constellations. With Starlink’s relatively low latency for a satellite Internet service, its crew might even find time to sneak in a little online gaming and video calls with family members back home.

Starlink now reaches all seven continents on Earth thanks to the NSF tapping it to provide Internet service for McMurdo Station.