SpaceX's Starlink broadband satellites could be used for GPS navigation

This image is from a May 24, 2019, launch and shows a fleet of SpaceX Starlink satellites poised to be deployed in orbit.
A new research study suggests that SpaceX's Starlink satellites could be used for global positioning and navigation in addition to their core function as broadband Internet.

Engineers from SpaceX discovered a way to use Starlink constellation signals to navigate, similar to global positioning satellites (GPS) that are used in the United States. According to the team, this is the first time Starlink has been used for navigation outside of SpaceX.

The team released a statement saying that researchers triangulated signals from six Starlink satellites in order to pinpoint a spot on Earth with less accuracy than 27 feet (8 meters). This is comparable to the GPS capabilities of smartphones, which can pinpoint your location on Earth to within 16ft (4.9m) depending on the conditions.

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"We eavesdropped upon the signal, then we developed sophisticated algorithms to pinpoint where we are, and we proved that it works with great accuracy," Zak Kassas (director of the Center for Automated Vehicles Research with Multimodal Assured Navigation at Ohio State University), said in the statement.

Kassas stated that Starlink was not designed for navigation, but that it was possible to learn certain parts of the system enough to be able to use it for navigation.

SpaceX did not help the researchers in developing their navigation system. They also had no access to data over the broadband connection. Instead, they used signals from multiple satellites to develop an algorithm that would locate a location on Earth.

The team then placed an antenna at the University of California, Irvine campus to try and locate it using Starlink. The experiment used Starlink signals to place the antenna's estimated position within 25 feet (7.7 meters) of its actual location.

Kassas stated that Starlink and the algorithm working together are comparable to previous projects. Other constellations of low-Earth orbit satellites also pinpointed locations within 75 feet (23 metres). Unrelated to this project, the U.S. Air Force was able to pinpoint high-altitude aircraft locations with an accuracy of 16.5 feet (5 metres).

Kassas pointed out that Starlink's accuracy will improve as more satellites are launched into orbit. The team said that SpaceX currently has approximately 1,700 satellites in operation, but they hope to launch more than 40,000. (Recent launches were delayed by a shortage of liquid oxygen caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starlink navigation may be used in place of traditional GPS navigation. However, this has its vulnerabilities. The team said that GPS is a long-established signal and can be used on smartphones and vehicles, but it's also easier to hack.

Starlink's altitude is also an advantage. It orbits at approximately 750 miles (1 200 km), which is closer to Earth than GPS in geosynchronous space at almost 23,500 miles (37 800 km). GPS is more focused on one area of the Earth than Starlink, which has the disadvantage of being less accessible.

Starlink satellites are launched more often than GPS, usually once every few weeks or years. This allows Starlink to upgrade its hardware more frequently.

In coincidentially, SpaceX has successfully launched many GPS satellites in recent years for the U.S. Space Force. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has not commented on the latest study via Twitter in recent days.

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