As much as SpaceX has become a force of nature in the deployment of commercial space infrastructure, the company’s work assisting nations’ attempts to militarize space has sat simmering on the back burner. Now, with a new military-minded division under the company’s newly christened “Starshield” banner, that could all change.
On December 2, SpaceX announced its next big enterprise would be a secured satellite network for “government entities” to “support national security efforts.” The newly added Starshield page on the SpaceX site is heavy on marketing but light on details to explain what this new division will do, but you only have to look back the company’s recent past to get a general idea.
The site mentions that, while the existing Starlink project is designed for commercial consumers, Starshield is for governments. The company promised its new “users,” a.k.a. militaries with deep pockets around the world, can procure access to these satellites for Earth observation, communications, and sending and transferring mission data or other payloads bound for low-Earth orbit. SpaceX touted its existing work with the U.S. Department of Defense and boasted about its Starlink inter-satellite laser communication terminal that could be incorporated into Starshield.
So what’s different about Starshield and SpaceX’s existing Starlink systems? SpaceX said Starshield will be even more secure than existing end-to-end encryption employed by existing Starshield satellites, and have the ability to handle classified cryptographically encrypted data. Other than that, SpaceX is implying that it will use existing infrastructure and technical know-how to create or reorient existing satellite tech for a military mindset.
Though this is an official launch of a military-branded SpaceX project, the company has already been a major affiliate of the U.S. government through a massive, ongoing partnership with NASA. But with tensions on the rise between the space-faring governments of the world, the military side of the equation seems too profitable to pass up. Just this year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), made it clear the agency is working on creating a kind of interconnected satellite system in low-Earth orbit. SpaceX and other commercial satellite operations will likely be instrumental for those plans.
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Starlink has already had military applications, most notably this year in Ukraine where it has been used by civilian and military forces on the ground. The U.S. had already backed that initiative with $3 million in support to build and deploy the Starlink hardware, though without even more funding the company recently raised prices among news of failing mobile networks, according to the Financial Times. Still, U.S. Space Command head General James Dickinson told Congress in March that “what we’re seeing with Elon Musk and the Starlink capabilities...is really kind of showing us what a megaconstellation or proliferated architecture can provide...[in] terms of redundancy and capability.”
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SpaceX has been sending “national security payloads” into space for years now. Back in 2018 it sent up a U.S. GPS satellite for the Air Force, and since Space Force was created back in 2019 the company had been awarded $149 million to build missile-tracing satellites. Back in June, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket containing an imaging satellite for the German military, but another rocket that same weekend was suspected of containing some kind of classified U.S. government payload. The company is also using its powerful Falcon Heavy rocket to loft Space Force payloads into orbit.
So SpaceX is already working hand-in-hand with the U.S. government and other militaries around the world, but now SpaceX wants to officially plunge all the way into the extraordinarily lucrative military contractor business. Just last week the company managed to secure a license to deploy 7,500 of its next generation satellites, though that’s only a fraction of what the company requested. Just how many more satellites will the company launch if it has a military contract under its belt? After all, the U.S. Pentagon’s Space Development Agency paid out close to $1.8 billion in contracts to the routine government contractors at Lockheed Martin, York Space, and Northrop Grumman. Those three companies are set to build a network of just 126 satellites for military communications.
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