Naughty Naughty – SpaceX Encrypts Starship SN11 Video Feed As Amateurs Try To Access Telemetry

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As it stands back from the fourth high altitude test of its Starship next-generation launch vehicle platform today, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) seems to have found a way to deal with amateur radio astronomers from seconding its communications. SpaceX uses certain frequency bands to communicate with its vehicles, and the fix seems to come after several video feeds from Falcon 9 Starlink launches were intercepted and decoded to provide video generally reserved for company employees.

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Video communications between SpaceX mission control Falcon 9 second stage started to make rounds on Twiter earlier this month after the company launched its twelfth operational Starlink mission in mid-March. They showed views of the Earth from the second stage and from inside the second stage's Liquid Oxygen tank.

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Due to the need to inform the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the frequencies that it uses to communicate with its rockets, the bands that SpaceX uses to communicate with the first and second Falcon 9 stages are publicly available. Amateur radio users use this information to try to catch some of this information, which then provides access to what SpaceX itself is looking at during launches.

A view from inside the Falcon 9's second stage during SpaceX's CRS-15 mission to the International Space Station in 2015. Image: SpaceX

A video clip shared by Twitter user A (name withheld) captured the tank and Earth views which were generated through data obtained by another user we'll call B. Following their earlier share, A followed up with similar footage for another Starlink launch, this time the one which took place earlier this week on Wednesday. The footage showed similar views of the liquid oxygen tank and views of the Earth.

Spurred by their success, the radio users then chose Starship as their next target. SpaceX is busy working on the platform's latest prototype - SN11 - at its facilities in Boca Chica, Texas, and true to form, yet another user we'll call C showed up near the test site.

Twitter user C's antenna pointed at SpaceX's Starship SN11 prototype during the vehicle's static fire earlier today. Image: User C/Twitter

By pointing his antenna at the SN11 prototype, C was able to get a hold of communication between the test vehicle and SpaceX mission controllers. He proceeded to share this with A, but to their disappointment, the latter was unable to decrypt the video.

While it appears as if communications between SpaceX and the Falcon 9 are not encrypted, those between Starship and the company's mission control are, as A was unable to extract anything except white noise.

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According to the Twitter user, while he was able to demodulate the file, it was encrypted and therefore he was unable to proceed further.

Twitter user A's screen share of encrypted SpaceX feed from the Starship SN11 prototype during its static fire today. Image: A/Twitter

Other enthusiasts and members of the public shared their thoughts on the matter, with some asking whether it was possible to decrypt the feed and others wondering if SpaceX would follow up with similar restrictions for Falcon 9 launches. Some also wondered if the video was encrypted at all.

Whether SpaceX will make changes to its Falcon 9 communications following the Twitter reveals is uncertain, but this question brings us to our take on the matter. Additionally, Starship communications might have been encrypted from the start, with the amateurs only finding out now as they tried to gain access to them.

Wccftech's take: Readers and amateur and other radio users are strongly advised to stop gaining access to SpaceX's communications with its launch vehicles. The company is responsible for handling payloads worth millions of dollars, and it needs its communication lines with the vehicle to be as smooth as possible. Additionally, the feeds might contain details that SpaceX would not want its competitors to gain access to, and should the company decide to implement strict encryption measures with the feeds, it will likely have to deal with slower communications with its vehicles. Finally, Starship is a test program and any confidential details about it that are shared publicly can potentially harm SpaceX's competitiveness. Therefore, keep your enthusiasm within safe limits folks!