SpaceX becomes full defense contractor with national security-focused Starshield

SpaceX becomes full defense contractor with national security-focused Starshield

SpaceX’s launch services have already become an invaluable resource for the US government, but the company is now leaping to the depths of the pool in which it had hitherto only splashed. Starshield, a new vertical within SpaceX, will provide “government entities” (think three-letter agencies) with secure communications and bespoke satellite designs.

The new brand (possibly a subsidiary) appeared as a new premium category on SpaceX’s website, alongside Dragon, Starlink and Starship, but beyond that it received no visible promotion or discussion. in corporate media channels. I asked the company for more details on certain aspects, but for now all there is to know is on the Starshield page.

The slogan is “support national security”, but it is not yet clear whether this will directly support intelligence or military operations, or be limited to less combat-advanced, if not purely civilian, roles. Satellite data – especially live imagery – is of enormous importance to the military, which both produces its own with spysats and pays companies like BlackSky for it. Although some other countries can take advantage of some of these capabilities, laws limit how much can be sold overseas.

Although Starshield’s page uses present tense, saying it provides certain services, it doesn’t list any active missions or clients, so this may be rhetorical. That said, the company claims to do Earth observation and secure communications, as well as satellite bus design.

Although SpaceX, through Starlink, had a lot of experience putting satellites into orbit, that network was supposed to be for consumers and general use, not an asset like a spysat. While SpaceX has one of its own military-grade Earth observation satellites, its design and launch were very quiet. But the success of Starlink shows that there is no reason why, in principle, the company should not be able to do so.

SpaceX says this government-focused service will require “Starshield user equipment,” which likely resembles Starlink in operation but meets certain special standards for robustness, access, documentation, and compatibility with existing networks and assets. . As Starlink itself has several levels of ground station, from the ordinary consumer roof type to the paired extra-tough nautical type, the Starshield version will likely be one of the higher end, inflated (e.g. with “an insurance additional high cryptographic capacity”) and with a corresponding price.

More importantly, this decision helps to separate the work of government from the work of consumers. The company lamented that its deployment of thousands of terminals in Ukraine has resulted in a quagmire of legal and financial whistleblowing: Ukraine cannot pay, its allies have not agreed to pay, and SpaceX cannot provide the expensive service for free indefinitely. This is partly because the entire network was never designed to be used in this way, and piggybacking a military/aid operation onto a consumer product has led to unintended consequences.

By being more intentional about what services it provides to government entities and under what terms, SpaceX likely hopes to avoid the blurred lines between being a global broadband provider and being a provider of military intelligence. Both can be very profitable in their own way, but one product rarely fulfills both purposes adequately.

Picture credits: SpaceX

The company also claims to produce a modular satellite bus for various types of missions, although this is not substantiated – not to say that it is not, but the capability is merely stated, not shown with anything beyond a wireframe.

No one can guess how far SpaceX has reached the capabilities it describes here – they may have already prototyped some of these things with some potential customers, or it may just be a statement of intent with these customers at the moment. spirit. Whatever the case right now, it seems clear that we will hear more about this service as its roles escape attempts at secrecy – for example, it is difficult to launch a large Earth observation satellite without anyone knowing.

I’ve asked SpaceX for more information about its customers and capabilities and will update this post if the company responds.

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