Categories: BroadbandNetworks

SpaceX ‘Developing Spy Satellites’ For US Agency

SpaceX is developing a network of hundreds of spy satellites for the United States government under a classified $1.8 billion (£1.4bn) contract with the National Reconaissance Office (NRO), an intelligence agency that manages spy satellites, Reuters reported.

The contract was signed in 2021 following an earlier contract in 2020, worth roughly $200m, under which SpaceX used one of its Falcon 9 rockets to launch an initial prototype satellite.

Roughly a dozen prototypes have been launched under the two contracts since 2020, the report said.

The project, being handled by SpaceX’s Starshield business unit, aims to create a network of low-orbit satellites that could provided detailed, near-continuous imagery of the Earth’s surface, according to the report.

A stack of flat Starlink satellites prepares to deploy in Earth orbit. Image credit: SpaceX

Spy network

It is separate from the company’s Starlink broadband communications network, which currently has about 5,500 satellites in orbit and is used by Ukraine for military communications during the conflict with Russia.

The Starshield network would aim to provide support to ground forces in tracking potential targets anywhere in the world.

The NRO acknowledged that it is developing an orbital surveillance system, while declining to provide details.

“The National Reconnaissance Office is developing the most capable, diverse, and resilient space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance system the world has ever seen,” the agency said in a statement.

An array of 60 Starlink satellites is spotted in the night sky over the Netherlands. Image credit: Dr. Marco Langbroek/sattrackcam.blogspot.com

‘No one can hide’

The network is to consist of large satellites with imaging sensors along with a larger number of relay satellites passing imaging and communications data across the network using inter-satellite lasers.

Reuters said a US government database identifies several SpaceX missions as having deployed satellites that neither the company nor the government have ever acknowledged, and that its sources confirmed those were Starshield prototypes.

“No one can hide,” said one of the news agency’s sources describing the system’s desired capability.

The NRO includes personnel from the US Space Force and CIA and provides satellite data to other intelligence agencies and the military.

‘Double standards’

Other unidentified third-party companies are involved in the satellite project, with one providing sensors.

China, which is said to be planning to launch its own satellite constellations, said in a social media account operated by the People’s Liberation Army that the plan showed US “shamelessness and double standards”.

SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk also operates electric vehicle maker Tesla, which has a significant manufacturing base and consumer market in China.

Musk commented on Starshield last year in a post on X, formerly Twitter, saying it was “similar to, but much smaller than Starlink”. He did not mention the sensing capabilities reported by Reuters.

The PLA post did not mention Musk or Tesla but urged “US companies to not help a villain do evil”.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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