Fact Check

Was the Missing Titanic Submersible Relying on Satellites from Elon Musk's SpaceX to Communicate?

The submersible went missing in June 2023 with five people on board during a dive to explore the Titanic wreckage.

Published Jun 20, 2023

Updated Jun 21, 2023
 (Screenshot via Twitter/OceanGateExped)
Image Via Screenshot via Twitter/OceanGateExped
Claim:
OceanGate's submersible that went missing in June 2023 on a Titanic wreckage exploration relied on Elon Musk’s SpaceX-run Starlink satellites to provide communications during the expedition.
Context

Starlink is a subsidiary of SpaceX, which Elon Musk runs, and OceanGate indeed said it was relying on the company for the expedition, which included the submersible and a mothership — that is, a vessel that stays above water to navigate and communicate with land during the expedition. However, scientists have pointed out that the submersible would have had an acoustic link with the surface vessel and could not have relied on satellite internet to communicate with the surface. How, or under what circumstances, the mothership used Starlink technology during the expedition remained unknown.

Editor's Note: Since the original publication of this fact check on June 20, 2023, Snopes clarified its rating and text to make clear that — while OceanGate, the company overseeing the submersible's expedition, said it was using Starlink satellites for the trip — the submersible itself was not using the technology to communicate. How, or to what extent, the vessel's mothership was using Starlink to communicate remained unknown.

On June 18, 2023, the submersible Titan was exploring the wreckage of the Titanic when it lost contact with the chartered research ship it was part of. Search-and-rescue operations soon were underway in the North Atlantic Ocean to bring up the five-person sub, who were facing the loss of oxygen and crushing pressure in the depths of the ocean, as of this writing. 

When news broke of the failed communications, a number of news reports and posts claimed that the missing submersible was relying on Elon Musk's Starlink satellites for its communications.

The claim is false. As scientists have pointed out, the submersible could not have relied on satellite internet to communicate with the surface while it was underwater.

However, it was true that OceanGate, the company that operates the submersible, said it was relying on Starlink technology during the expedition. OceanGate tweeted right before the expedition that it was relying on Starlink: "Without any cell towers in the middle of the ocean, we are relying on @Starlink to provide the communications we require throughout this year's 2023 Titanic Expedition." 

In another tweet, the company thanked Starlink for "the internet connection we need to make our Titanic dive operations a success."

Starlink in turn quote tweeted OceanGate, saying, "Internet from space supporting Titanic dive expedition."

Starlink, which develops satellite technology, is a subsidiary of SpaceX, a satellite and spacecraft company that Musk founded and runs. According to Starlink's website, "SpaceX is leveraging its experience in building rockets and spacecraft to deploy the world's most advanced broadband internet system."

Stefan B. Williams, a professor at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, University of Sydney, wrote in The Conversation that the submersible's communications were through a transponder that received sonar signals through the water:

The Titan would have had an acoustic link with its surface vessel, set up through a transponder (a device for receiving a sonar signal) on its end, and a transceiver (a device that can both transmit and receive communications) on the surface vessel.

This link allows for underwater acoustic positioning, as well as for short text messages to be sent back and forth to the surface vessel – but the amount of data that can be shared is limited and usually includes basic telemetry and status information.

According to OceanGate's archived FAQs the Titan communicates with its team on the surface primarily through text messages:

Titan communicates with the topside comms and tracking team via text messages which are exchanged via a USBL (ultra-short baseline) acoustic system. The sub is required to communicate with topside every fifteen minutes or more frequently if needed.  Tracking of the sub's position (lat/long and depth) is achieved through the same system but is controlled by the computer and updates the sub's position every few seconds. 

We reached out to SpaceX and OceanGate to learn more details about the communications failure and what Starlink was doing to support the rescue efforts.

A spokesperson with OceanGate did not confirm or deny the company's relationship with Starlink, and did not respond to our queries on how their submersible communications rely on Starlink satellites, saying he was only able to share the following statement:

OceanGate can confirm that CEO Stockton Rush is aboard the submersible as a member of the crew.

For some time, we have been unable to establish communications with one of our submersible exploration vehicles which is currently visiting the wreck site of the Titanic. Our entire focus is on the wellbeing of the crew and every step possible is being taken to bring the five crew members back safely. We are deeply grateful for the urgent and extensive assistance we are receiving from multiple government agencies and deep-sea companies as we seek to reestablish contact with the submersible. We pray for the safe return of the crew and passengers, and we will provide updates as they are available.

While OceanGate's official Twitter account confirmed that the company did rely on Starlink for communications, Starlink satellites were not used by the submersible to communicate. How, or under what circumstances, the mothership used Starlink technology during the exhibition remained unknown. We rate this claim as "False" and will update this post as we get more information. 
 

 

Sources

"FAQs - OceanGate Expeditions." 30 May 2023, https://web.archive.org/web/20230530032226/https://oceangateexpeditions.com/about-us/faqs/. Accessed 21 June 2023.

Ibrahim, Nur. Interview with OceanGate Spokesperson. 20 June 2023.

"Missing OceanGate Submersible Was Using Starlink Space-Based Internet on Titanic Expedition." Yahoo News, 21 June 2023, https://www.aol.com/news/missing-oceangate-submersible-using-starlink-153925518.html.

Ives, Mike, and John Ismay. "Missing Submersible: Rescuers Estimate Missing Titanic Tour Sub Has Less Than 40 Hours of Air Left." The New York Times, 20 June 2023. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2023/06/20/us/titanic-missing-submarine. Accessed 20 June 2023.

Russell, Graham. "Missing Titanic Submersible: What Is the Titan Tourist Sub and What Might Have Happened to It?" The Guardian, 20 June 2023. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/jun/20/missing-titanic-sub-titan-submersible-tourist-oceangate-what-is-it-and-what-might-have-happened. Accessed 20 June 2023.

"Starlink." Starlink, https://www.starlink.com. Accessed 20 June 2023.

"Titanic Tourist Submersible Missing with 5 Onboard Was Using Elon Musk's Starlink Satellites: 10 Points Update." Hindustan Times, 20 June 2023, https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/titanic-tourist-submersible-missing-with-5-onboard-was-using-elon-musks-starlink-satellites-10-points-update-101687240744273.html. Accessed 20 June 2023.

Updates

June 21, 2023: This article was updated to clarify that it was unknown to what extent OceanGate relied on Starlink's communications.

June 21, 2023: This fact check was amended to address the legitimacy of claims that the submersible itself used Starlink during the exhibition, not whether its company did. While it was true that Oceangate and Starlink worked together during the expedition, it was unknown if, or to what extent, the submersible itself relied on Starlink's technology.

21 June 2023: This fact check was amended to add more information from OceanGate on how its submersible communicates with the surface vessel.

June 21, 2023: The fact check was amended to add details on the Titan's communication with the surface, which stated that they could not rely on satellite communications under water and used text messages.

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.