Tech

SpaceX chases government cash with Starshield satellites

SpaceX is developing a new satellite fleet designed for government use.

The Musk-owned space company didn’t so much announce Starshield as it simply added it to its website without many specifics, as is to be expected from a satellite program designed with the national security in mind.

According to SpaceX’s Starshield page, the satellites will function as a “secured satellite network for government entities” that will use the same basic tech as Starlink, though with extra capabilities focused on three areas: Earth observation, communications, and hosted payloads. 

The latter category refers to Starshield satellite buses, the main body of the satellite, being built “to support the most demanding customer payload missions.” In other words, Starshield is modular enough to support lots of different types of hardware built by government customers.

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The satellites will also have Starlink’s self-proclaimed “unparalleled end-to-end user data encryption” onboard along with additional “high-assurance cryptographic capability to host classified payloads and process data securely.” 

SpaceX also said Starshield takes advantage of the company’s approach to developing space systems in a “full stack … end-to-end” fashion, which it said will allow government customers to deploy new hardware “with unprecedented speed.”

Smells like Space-BACN

Much is known of SpaceX’s work with the US government, representatives from which have even described SpaceX as relying on the government’s own space operations for continued existence – a fact Musk has acknowledged.

The private space firm has been awarded plenty of government contracts over the years, from military satellite deals, to being arguably the top partner in NASA’s public-private space launch program, to supplying Starlink terminals to the US government for the war in Ukraine.

The relationship between Musk and the US government hasn’t been entirely smooth. Despite the FCC and SpaceX butting heads, the Biden administration has continued to call on SpaceX to do things like supply Starlink terminals to embattled regions like Iran, where internet connections have been cut due to ongoing protests.

And it seems Starshield may have been on the cards for some time, under a different name. DARPA announced a project called the Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node, or Space-BACN, in 2021 with an aim to get all the various privately-owned satellite constellations floating in Earth’s orbits to talk to each other using optical terminals.

Fast-forward to August of this year, and DARPA was still going on about Space-BACN, but this time with a purpose: It tapped SpaceX and other companies to get Space-BACN nodes off the drawing board and into orbit.

Starshield’s webpage doesn’t mention Space-BACN by name, but it does mention the project’s goal as one of the things Starlink, and thus Starshield, already has going for it: Interoperability. 

According to the company, connections between satellite constellations can be achieved through Starlink’s existing inter-satellite laser communications terminal, which SpaceX said is the only communications laser currently operating at scale in orbit. 

Those lasers, which SpaceX uses to connect Starlink satellites to each other, “can be integrated onto partner satellites to enable incorporation into the Starshield network” – precisely what DARPA seems to be looking for, and delivered in a way guaranteed to make SpaceX more money.

There are still a lot of unknowns surrounding Starshield, and we’ve reached out to SpaceX to learn what we can. Among the things that are unknown is whether any Starshield satellites have already been launched or if any governments, US included, have expressed interest. ®


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