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How SpaceX got Starlink up and running in Ukraine: report

An artist's illustration of SpaceX's Starlink internet satellites in orbit.
An artist's illustration of SpaceX's Starlink internet satellites in orbit. (Image credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX worked for six weeks to bring Starlink satellite internet service to Ukraine ahead of a formal request from government officials of the besieged country.

SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell shared the news Monday (March 7) during an online presentation, which was first reported by SpaceNews (opens in new tab).

"We had been working on trying to get permission — landing rights — to lay down capacity in Ukraine,” Shotwell said according to SpaceNews, saying the company was working on this due to planned expansion of Starlink services in Europe and other locations. "We had been working with the Ukrainians for a month and a half or so."

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk came through on a pledge to deliver Starlink in late February, after Ukraine's lack of connectivity had an official ask Musk personally (opens in new tab) for assistance on Twitter. 

That official was Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's vice prime minister and the country's minister of digital transformation. Two days after his tweet, on Feb. 28, he shared a photo on Twitter (opens in new tab) of a batch of new Starlink terminals.

Related: Russia's Ukraine invasion and space impacts: Live updates

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Shotwell said the tweet allowed SpaceX to proceed with the "landing rights", as they were lacking a formal letter from Ukraine before Russia invaded the country Feb. 24 to international condemnation. 

"But then they tweeted," SpaceNews quoted Shotwell (opens in new tab) as saying of Fedorov's request, on behalf of the Ukrainian government. "There's our permission."

She noted that providing Starlink was, in the company's estimation, "the right thing to do" because "the best way to uphold democracies is to make sure we all understand what the truth is." 

Russia has been suspending services to its own citizens on Twitter and other social networks (unless such people use a virtual private network to access the information.) The country also recently introduced wide-ranging sanctions against independent journalists reporting on the war, forcing many international bureaus to leave Russia or modify reporting practices to protect journalist safety.

SpaceX joins an ever-growing list of companies and countries taking action to support Ukraine in the effort to fight back against the Russian invasion. Russia is under numerous economic sanctions affecting the space industry, among other things.

At the moment, the International Space Station remains operational as usual, according to NASA (opens in new tab); Russia and the United States are the chief partners on the multinational coalition. ISS operations are approved through 2024, although a hoped-for extension to 2030 appears tricky under the circumstances.

Numerous international space partnerships with Russia have frayed or disintegrated in the largest such change in the space industry since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.