Posted on October 22, 2022 at 5:57 PM
The potential of the Starlink network goes far beyond providing high-speed internet connection to some of the remote areas on earth. According to researchers from the University of Texas, the more than 3,000 satellites that comprise the Starlink network can be used in the Global Positioning System.
Starlink hacked for use as GPS signal
A team of researchers from the University of Texas sought the collaboration of SpaceX to uncover this new use case for the Starlink satellite. However, SpaceX declined the invitation, and the researchers were forced to take the long route of using Starlink as a GPS alternative.
The thousands of satellites owned by Starlink have a non-geostationary position within the low-Earth orbit. The GPS satellites follow one out of the six orbits that circle the earth daily. Nevertheless, these satellites had a similar feature in that they each passed their signals to the earth’s surface.
Starlink uses its satellites to deliver internet connectivity. On the other hand, the signals provided by multiple GPS satellites go toward navigation devices that can triangulate the exact position of objects on the planet.
The team of researchers from the University of Texas looking into the GPS use cases of Starlink satellites was headed by Todd Humphreys. These researchers found that Starlink can also be used as a reliable backup of the GPS.
However, SpaceX decided that offering GPS services was not a priority for the company and halted its cooperation with the researchers. This was a significant setback for the team, but since the researchers were only interested in the signals and not the information they were broadcasting, they had everything they needed to go on with their research.
The move to use the Starlink satellites as a navigation system could have been easier if SpaceX had cooperated on the deal. However, without this cooperation, the University of Texas research team took around two years to achieve their objective.
The team commenced the research by buying a Starlink terminal and service that they used to stream HD YouTube videos around the clock. The setup of the Starlink system was connected with a nearby antenna that could detect the continuous synchronization sequence signals used by the Starlink service to ensure receivers on the ground remained connected with the satellites.
The researchers never attempted to decrypt the encryption service used by Starlink to ensure that information transmitted by its users remained private to its subscribers.
Once the antenna detected the continuous synchronization signals, they were sent at precise and termed intervals equating to four sequences per millisecond. This is the same approach used by the GPS.
Starlink usually shares information about the movement of its Starlink satellites online to lower the risk of collision with hardware from other companies. The researchers paired the synchronization signals with this information to detect the source of the signal and the distance of the satellite. These details can indicate the receiver’s location at an accuracy of around 98 feet.
The accuracy level of the Starlink satellites is notably low compared to the GPS. The GPS has an estimated millimeter accuracy if one uses advanced receiver equipment such as the one used by the military.
The research team headed by Humphreys recently shared the team’s work in decoding the Starlink signal structure through a non-peer-reviewed paper. Humphreys believes that if SpaceX can cooperate in the initiative and explore the GPS service space by conducting software updates and providing additional data within the synchronization signals, it could improve the positional accuracy to below one meter. This could be nearly the same as the accuracy level offered by GPS consumer hardware.
There is a catch
As aforementioned, SpaceX is not interested in exploring the GPS. Therefore, there are obvious weaknesses that come from relying on the data sources from these satellites for GPS services.
One of these weaknesses is the potential security risk. With the information now being out there, everyone knows what these satellites look like, and some will be eager to spoof the information and fake it for malicious purposes.
GPS and GLONASS prioritize security because they were initially created as military tools. Therefore, with SpaceX’s lack of interest in the navigation service industry, there could be obvious problems in relying on satellites for GPS services because the company will not conduct software updates to maintain the security status of the satellite navigation system.