Elon Musk

The Air Force's Global Lightning program will test all SpaceX Starlink satellites

The Air Force's Global Lightning program will test all SpaceX Starlink satellites

Image Source: SpaceX

SpaceX was awarded a $28 million contract from United States' Air Force Research Laboratory in 2018, to test and asses Starlink satellites by connecting their broadband internet to military platforms. They also awarded millions to several different satellite communication companies, including terminal and software developers. The U.S military wants to experiment with how space-based internet services might enhance their Multi-Domain Operations (MDO), officials stated:

"We’re not focused just on any one company.
Our intent is to characterize the performance and understand the pros and cons of all of the commercial systems when used on military platforms."

These MDO operations will require moving vast quantities of data between the five domains of warfare -at sea, in the air, in outer  space, and cyberspace. Therefore, the military needs a reliable communication system to protect and defend the country from potential threats. Space-based internet is faster and more reliable than our current internet infrastructure. A SpaceX satellite can beam internet connectivity at the speed of light from space, unlike fiber-optic cables and ground antenna towers that tend to lag.

“SpaceX designed Starlink to connect end users with low-latency, high-bandwidth broadband services by providing continual coverage around the world using a network of thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit.”


SpaceX is in the process of building the Starlink constellation which will provide low latency, broadband internet services all over the world. The company aims to offer high-speed affordable internet to everyone (not just the military), even places where there is no internet connectivity, and where existing services are not reliable or too expensive. They will surround Earth with a mega-constellation consisting of 12,000 satellites, these will beam high-speed internet all over the planet. Each satellite is a flat panel with a single solar array that unfolds upwards, its size is relatively small compared to other satellites, about the size of an office desk but weighing about 500.5 pounds.

According to SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, It will take about 400 satellites to establish "minor" internet coverage and 800 satellites for "moderate" or "significant operational" coverage. Each rocket launch of 60 satellites would deliver 1 terabit of bandwith, that could potentially support 40,000 users streaming ultra-high-definition content at once. Global coverage will be achieved after 24 rocket launches of 60 satellites each. They aim to conduct all 24 launches this year!

SpaceX has successfully deployed 120 satellites into low Earth orbit. The first batch of 60 Starlink satellites was launched in May this year, and the second batch of 60 in November. They are scheduled to launch a third batch of 60 satellites next week.

On Monday January 6, from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. A Falcon 9 rocket will lift off at 9:20 p.m. EST from Pad 40.

Monday night's launch will transform SpaceX into the company with the world's largest satellite constellation composed of 180 Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit. They are scheduled to deploy hundreds more. As many as 24 Starlink missions are scheduled for this year -that's an average of two Starlink launches per month.

SpaceX President, Gwynne Shotwell, spoke about the partnership with the U.S. military in October 2019, at the International Aeronautical Congress. Shotwell said, "We are delivering high bandwidth into the cockpit of Air Force planes [...] Right now we're just testing the capability and figuring out how to make it work."  The Air Force program, named Global Lightning, has been testing Starlink satellites. The program is tied to the development of the Advanced Battle Management System.

The Department of Defense public announcement states that, SpaceX "proposes to perform experiments in [...] early versions of a commercial space-to-space data relay service and mobile connectivity directly from space to aircraft."

Starlink terminals were fixed to the cockpit of a C-12J Huron twin-engine turboprop military airplane, they beamed encrypted internet from space. Program officials said the tests have demonstrated significantly higher Internet connection and data-transfer rates than what Air Force aircraft can currently receive.

The Starlink broadband network demonstrated high-speed internet connectivity of 610 megabits per-second, equivalent to a gigabyte every ~13 seconds.
That provides them with faster access to live video, weather, and other data while in flight. Some of the data could involve signal from sensors to detect threats. Though, officials did not tie Starlink's capability to any particular type of mission.

Image: KC-135 Stratotanker/U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Angelique Perez.

Global Lighting also conducted an experiment from November 15 to December 17 last year. They used the Starlink constellation of 60 satellites launched to low Earth orbit in May 2019, to test connectivity with an AC-130 military airplane from Air Force Special Operations Command. 

The next experiment will begin this year by Spring. It will be a test conducted in coordination with the Air Mobility Command that aims to connect all the available Starlink satellites to a KC-135 tanker aircraft.

Starlink satellites use the most advanced technology. In order to move through orbits in space, the satellites are equipped with ion thrusters powered by krypton. Ion thrusters use a charge difference to shoot ions (charged molecules) out into a specific direction, creating force to move the satellite in the opposite direction. This propulsion system gives Starlink the capability to autonomously move to avoid collisions with space debris and other spacecraft by utilizing inputs from the Department of Defense’s debris tracking system. Navigation sensors, 'Star Trackers,' tell each satellite its attitude, which helps enable precision placement of broadband throughput. During operation, each Starlink satellite will link to 4 others using lasers -no other internet providing satellites feature this technology. They will have the ability to allocate broadband resources in real time, placing capacity where its most on demand. And be capable of directing signal away from areas where it might cause interference to other systems in space or on Earth.

Read more: SpaceX Starlink satellites seen over Montana last night.

About the Author

Evelyn Arevalo

Evelyn Arevalo

Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.

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