Responders fighting wildfires in Washington are getting some extra help from SpaceX and the company’s internet-from-space Starlink initiative. SpaceX loaned the Washington Emergency Management Division a handful of user terminals that can tap into the company’s Starlink satellites, providing internet to rural areas where first responders are battling raging wildfires.
SpaceX is still at the very beginning of building out its Starlink constellation, which could consist of nearly 12,000 satellites when it’s complete. That number of satellites could beam broadband internet services to every spot on Earth at all times from relatively low orbits, potentially providing global internet coverage from space. There’s still a ways to go. So far, SpaceX has launched nearly 800 satellites, though dozens have also been taken out of orbit. SpaceX plans to start beta testing in the Washington area with the satellites that remain in orbit.
“What happened is that they happened to have satellites that could reach our area,” Steven Friedrich, a spokesperson for the Washington Emergency Management Division, wrote to The Verge in a message.
Glad SpaceX could help! We are prioritizing emergency responders & locations with no Internet connectivity at all.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 28, 2020
The Washington Emergency Management Division is using two of SpaceX’s user terminals to receive broadband from overhead satellites. One is located near Malden, Washington, which was devastated by wildfires, and another is located near a smaller fire dubbed the Sumner-Grade Wildfire in western Washington. “Without the terminal, internet would be nearly impossible to achieve” near the Malden area, according to Friedrich. “My understanding is this is the first [public] use of Starlink and the partnership their technical experts have had with our team in the state [Emergency Operations Center] has been invaluable,” Friedrich said.
SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment. However, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk did respond to a tweet from the Washington Emergency Management Division about the terminals, noting that the company is “prioritizing first responders and locations with no Internet connectivity at all” with Starlink.
The Starlink system has been great for communication, according to Friedrich. Responders have used the terminals to coordinate where to drop water on the fires and to request additional resources and supplies from the agency. It’s also being used in Malden to help the public as they rebuild their homes. Friedrich noted that this kind 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 being pushed under North America in an area called the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Eventually, this could cause a devastating earthquake that could leave parts of the region without power for weeks. During that kind of disaster, communication issues would abound, says Friedrich.
“This is a device we could definitely utilize should we have more wildfires or even larger disasters,” he said.