Starlink alerts could be reverse-engineered to work like GPS—whether or not SpaceX likes it or not


In a non peer-reviewed paper that he has posted on his lab’s web site, Humphreys claims to have supplied essentially the most full characterization of Starlink’s alerts to this point. This info, he says, is step one towards growing a brand new world navigation expertise that might function independently of GPS or its European, Russian, and Chinese language equivalents. 

“The Starlink system sign is a carefully guarded secret,” says Humphreys. “Even in our early discussions, when SpaceX was being extra cooperative, they didn’t reveal any of the sign construction to us. We needed to begin from scratch, constructing mainly a bit radio telescope to listen in on their alerts.”

To get the challenge began, UT Austin acquired a Starlink terminal and used it to stream high-definition tennis movies of Rafael Nadal from YouTube, 24/7. This supplied a relentless supply of Starlink alerts {that a} separate close by antenna might eavesdrop on.

Humphreys shortly realized that Starlink depends on a expertise referred to as orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM). OFDM is an environment friendly technique of encoding digital transmissions, initially developed at Bell Labs within the Nineteen Sixties and now utilized in Wi-Fi and 5G. “OFDM is all the craze,” says Mark Psiaki, a GPS skilled and aerospace professor at Virginia Tech. “It’s a technique to pack essentially the most bits per second right into a given bandwidth.” 

The UT Austin researchers didn’t attempt to break Starlink’s encryption or entry any consumer knowledge coming down from satellites. As a substitute, they sought out synchronization sequences—predictable, repeating alerts beamed down by the satellites in orbit to assist receivers coordinate with them. Not solely did Humphreys discover such sequences, however “we had been pleasantly shocked to seek out that they [had] extra synchronization sequences than is strictly required,” he says.

Every sequence additionally accommodates clues to the satellite tv for pc’s distance and velocity. With the Starlink satellites transmitting about 4 sequences each millisecond “that’s simply great for twin use of their system for positioning,” says Humphreys. 

If the terrestrial receiver has a good suggestion of the satellites’ actions—which SpaceX shares on-line to cut back the chance of orbital collisions—it will possibly use the sequences’ regularity to work out which satellite tv for pc they got here from, after which calculate the gap to that satellite tv for pc. By repeating this course of for a number of satellites, a receiver can find itself to inside about 30 meters, says Humphreys.


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