Space Force Monitoring Starlink Reentries

As progress on the Starlink constellation continues, especially as the satellites are in low Earth orbit, responsible deorbiting is an increasing part of the conversation. Many satellites are designed to burn up upon re-entry, but the controlled deorbiting process can resemble a missile to many military detection systems. Additionally, should a satellite fail to burn up as intended, a hotly debated FAA report to Congress has suggested that by 2035, debris from satellites deorbiting out of LEO constellations could injure or kill someone every two years. While SpaceX disputes this finding, and it does seem that the data and assumptions used to produce it are flawed, the risk of either harm on Earth or false alarms regarding harm on Earth is worthy of consideration and public awareness. With approximately 100 satellites deorbiting, which is a larger than usual amount for a single operation, the United States Space Force is monitoring the operation to ensure that it is conducted responsibly. 

Several possible cybersecurity issues exist in relation to this and similar missions. One is that private companies and military forces may not always cooperate so easily. SpaceX has many incentives to cooperate with the Space Force, as they regularly receive government contracts for a wide variety of missions, but companies that have weaker ties to the US government or that are primarily linked to a different nation’s government may not be so willing to give the US Space Force information regarding their satellites and operations. The approach by the Space Force of publicizing the data for this operation online aids transparency, but there is no guarantee that other countries would handle it similarly. Without international agreements to enforce the publication of data regarding deorbiting satellites that could trigger missile defense systems, false alarms could increase, which could have catastrophic consequences if taken seriously and responded to.

More broadly, the idea of false positives in the context of a missile defense system is concerning as well. With an increased reliance on artificial intelligence and other automated technology in many industries, satellites that are falsely flagged as missiles by software may be subject to reduced human oversight. Missile warnings are an emergency situation requiring an immediate response, so safeguards need to be in place to verify a true missile attack rather than a mislabeled satellite. The two likely consequences of introducing more deorbiting satellites to create potential false positives are a nation responding to a missile attack that never happened, wasting resources and possibly igniting a conflict that had not previously existed, or a delay in responding to a true attack, putting lives at risk. In a world with ongoing hostilities in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and more, it is imperative that militaries have information about planned satellite deorbiting to flag it appropriately internally. 

Knowing this risk, a bad actor could even exploit the possibility for confusion. A satellite could be designed to intentionally trigger the system, with its creators deliberately avoiding providing an appropriate warning. Similarly, if a bad actor is able to gain access to a missile defense system, they now have an additional avenue to damage its performance and credibility. While SpaceX and the Space Force have peaceful intentions aimed at mitigating possible confusion, there are others who may have the opposite intentions.

Works Cited: 

Erwin, S. (2024, June 28). Military space trackers to keep public informed on Starlink Satellite reentries. SpaceNews.