Rescuers fighting the fires in Washington are getting extra help from SpaceX and the Internet company’s Starlink initiative from space. SpaceX has loaned the Washington Emergency Management Division a handful of user terminals that can tap into the company’s Starlink satellites, providing the Internet to rural areas where first responders are battling wildfires.
SpaceX is still in the early stages of building its Starlink constellation, which could consist of nearly 12,000 satellites when complete. That number of satellites could broadcast broadband internet services to any point on Earth at any time from relatively low orbits, potentially providing global internet coverage from space. There is still a long way to go. So far, SpaceX has launched nearly 800 satellites, although dozens have also been knocked out of orbit. SpaceX plans to start beta testing in the Washington area with the satellites remaining in orbit.
“What happened is that they have satellites capable of reaching our area,” wrote Steven Friedrich, a spokesman for the Washington Emergency Management Division. The Verge in a message.
Glad SpaceX can help! We prioritize first responders and locations with no internet connectivity.
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 28, 2020
The Washington Emergency Management Division is using two of SpaceX’s user terminals to receive broadband from the satellites above. One is near Malden, Washington, which was ravaged by wildfires, and another is near a smaller fire dubbed the Sumner-Grade Wildfire in western Washington. “Without the terminal, the Internet would be nearly impossible to reach” near the Malden area, according to Friedrich. “My understanding is that this is the first [public] the use of Starlink and the partnership their technical experts have had with our team in the state [Emergency Operations Center] it was invaluable, ”Friedrich said.
SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment. However, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk responded to a Washington Emergency Management Division tweet about the terminals, noting that the company is “prioritizing first responders and locations with no Internet connectivity” with Starlink.
The Starlink system was great for communication, according to Friedrich. Rescuers used the terminals to coordinate where to drop the water on the fires and to request additional resources and supplies from the agency. It is also used in Malden to help the public as they rebuild their homes. Friedrich noted that this type of system could be useful in the future for other types of disasters, such as a major earthquake. Just off the coast of Washington, parts of the Earth’s crust are pushed under North America into an area called the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Eventually, this could cause a devastating earthquake that could leave parts of the region without electricity for weeks. During that type of disaster, communication problems would be plentiful, says Friedrich.
“This is a device that we could definitely use if we were to have more fires or even bigger disasters,” he said.