Starshield is a business unit of SpaceX for the creation of purpose-built low-Earth orbit satellites designed to provide new "disruptive" military space capabilities to U.S. and allied governments.[1][2][3][4] Starshield was adapted from the global communications network Starlink but brings additional capabilities such as target tracking, optical and radio reconnaissance, and early missile warning.[5][6][7][8] Primary customers include the Space Development Agency, National Reconnaissance Office and the United States Space Force.[5][9][10]As of 2024, at least 16 Starshield satellites have been launched, with an unknown number of additional satellites being launched in May as part of NROL-146.[11]

While SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell has indicated there is little information she is allowed to disclose about Starshield, she has noted "very good collaboration" between the intelligence community and SpaceX on the program.[1] The Starshield website says it has a focus on three areas; Earth observation, communications and hosted payloads.[12] The Wall Street Journal reported that Starshield's online job postings required people with top-secret clearances, as well as experience working with the Defense Department and intelligence community — such as representing Starshield to Pentagon combatant commands.[1]

The former four-star general Terrence O'Shaughnessy, who previously ran U.S. Northern Command, is the vice president for SpaceX's Special Programs Group who is thought to be involved with Starshield.[1]

The first satellites were designed for the Space Development Agency and outfitted with advanced infrared sensors meant to detect and track ballistic and hypersonic missiles.[13] In 2021, Starshield had entered a $1.8 billion classified contract with the U.S. government, revealed in 2023,[1] to construct hundreds of spy satellites for continuous real time monitoring of targets around the globe.[9] These are slated to begin operations from May 2024, starting with NROL-146. These satellites are made in cooperation with Northrop Grumman.[14]

History

Starshield program

The Starshield name was publicly announced December 2022,[15] however in 2021, Starshield had already entered a $1.8 billion classified contract with the U.S. government, revealed in 2023.[1] In the documents of the contract, SpaceX says that funds from the contract were expected to become an important part of the revenue mix of the company after 2021.[1] Reuters revealed in 2024 that this contract was between the National Reconnaissance Office and SpaceX, and for a spy satellite network consisting of hundreds of satellites functioning as a swarm.[9] The satellites will have imaging capabilities and the satellite network will enable the US government to have continuous surveillance of nearly anywhere around the globe.[9] Starshield also plans to be more resilient to attack from other powers.[9] Starshield's imaging capabilities are designed to have superior resolution over most existing U.S. government spying systems. Northrop Grumman was selected to partner with SpaceX with insiders noting "it is in the government's interest to not be totally invested in one company run by one person".[16]

As early as 2020, SpaceX was designing, building, and launching customized satellites based on variants of the Starlink satellite bus for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

Elon Musk and (now retired) four-star general Terrence J. O'Shaughnessy meet in April 2019

In October 2020, SDA awarded SpaceX an initial $150 million dual-use contract to develop 4 satellites to detect and track ballistic and hypersonic missiles.[13] The first batch of satellites were originally scheduled to launch September 2022 to form part of the Tracking Layer Tranche 0 of the Space Force's National Defense Space Architecture.[17] The launch schedule slipped multiple times but eventually launched in April 2023.[18][19]

In 2020, SpaceX hired retired four-star general Terrence J. O'Shaughnessy who according to some sources is associated with Starlink's military satellite development and according to one source is listed as a "chief operating officer" at SpaceX.[20][21] While still in active duty, O'Shaughnessy advocated before the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services for a layered capability with lethal follow-on that incorporates machine learning and artificial intelligence to gather and act upon sensor data quickly.[22] As of 2024, Terrence O’Shaughnessy reportedly has had a high-level role at Starshield though there is no indication that SpaceX is working on anything related to lethal weapons.[1]

SpaceX was not awarded a contract for the larger Tranche 1, with awards going to York Space Systems, Lockheed Martin Space, and Northrop Grumman Space Systems.[23]

As Starlink was being relied on in the Russo-Ukrainian war, expert on battlefield communications Thomas Wellington argued that Starlink signals, because they use narrow focused beams, are less vulnerable to interference and jamming by the enemy in wartime than satellites flying in higher orbits.[24]

Another Starshield contract was announced in September 2023, involving communications-focused services for U.S. Space Systems Command.[25][26] This contract with the US Space Force plans to provide customized satellite communications for the military.[27] This is under the Space Force's new "Proliferated Low Earth Orbit" program for LEO satellites, where Space Force will allocate up to $900 million worth of contracts over the next 10 years. Although 16 vendors are competing for awards, the SpaceX contract is the only one to have been issued to date.[25][27] The one-year Starshield contract was awarded on September 1, 2023.[10] The contract is expected to support 54 mission partners across the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard.[10]

In February 2024, the United States House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party sent a letter to Elon Musk stating that the Starshield program was potentially in breach of contract for not providing access to U.S. troops stationed in Taiwan when "global access" was "possibly" required by the contract.[28][29] SpaceX responded that they were in full compliance with their U.S. government contracts. SpaceX had notified the Select Committee a week earlier that they were misinformed, but the Select Committee "chose to contact media before seeking additional information [regarding Starshield military use in Taiwan]".[30]

In the context of military communication satellites, Col. Eric Felt, director of space architecture at the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, said there are plans to acquire at least 100 Starshield-branded satellites for this purpose by 2029. He said that while the military is an active user of SpaceX's commercial Starlink service, they also wants to take advantage of the company's dedicated Starshield product line. Clare Hopper, head of the Space Force’s Commercial Satellite Communications Office (CSCO) stated that demand for Starlink's commercial service is "off the charts" and that currently all of their supported users are still using the commercial Starlink satellite constellation, but that the DoD has "unique service plans that contain privileged capabilities and features that are not available commercially."[31]

Launches

Between 2020 and March 2024, a dozen Starshield prototypes and operational satellites were launched on Falcon 9.[9] Reuters reported that these satellites have never been acknowledged by SpaceX or the US government and remain classified.[9]

Images were posted online[32] of the two SpaceX-built Space Development Agency Tranche 0 Flight 1 Tracking Layer infrared imaging satellites that launched on 2 April 2023.[33] After the launch of Starlink Group 7-16, only 20 of a batch of 22 starlink satellites were catalogued and the remaining two were later designated as USA-350 and USA-351.[34]

Starshield launches[35]
No. Mission Name or Designation Sat. Ver. COSPAR ID Date and time,
UTC
Launch site Orbit Satellites Outcome Customer
Altitude Orbital Inclination Deployed Working
USA 312-313[36] v1.0 2020-101 19 December 2020
14:00:00
KSC, LC-39A 540 km (340 mi)[36] 53° 2[36] 2 Success National Reconnaissance Office
Possibly launched on NROL-108 mission. Likely test Starshield satellites.[36]
1 USA 320-323 v1.5 2022-002 13 January 2022
15:25:38
CCSFS, SLC-40 525 km (326 mi) 97.6° 4 1 Success Unknown US Government Agency
Likely test versions or operational Starshield satellites. Part of Transporter-3 (SmallSat Rideshare Mission 3).
2 USA 328-331 v1.5 2022-064 19 June 2022
04:27
CCSFS, SLC-40 535 km (332 mi) 52° 4 4 Success Unknown US Government Agency
Likely test versions or operational Starshield satellites. Launched with Globalstar-2 FM-15 (M087) mission.
3 Tracking Layer (Tranche 0A) v1.5 2023-050 2 April 2023
14:29
VSFB, SLC-4E 951 km (591 mi)[37] 80.99°[37] 2[38] 2 Success Space Development Agency
Likely operational Starshield satellites. Hosts infrared payloads manufactured by Leidos. Launched with 8 York Space Systems-built Transport layer satellites on this mission.[39][40]
4 Tracking Layer (Tranche 0B) v1.5 2023-133 2 September 2023
14:25
VSFB, SLC-4E 951 km (591 mi)[37] 80.99° 2[38] 2 Success Space Development Agency
Likely operational Starshield satellites. Hosts infrared payloads manufactured by Leidos. Launched with one York Space Systems-built and 10 Lockheed Martin/Tyvak Space Systems-built Transport layer satellites on this mission.[40]
5 USA 350-351 v2.0 Mini 2024-050 19 March 2024, 02:28 VSFB, SLC-4E 525 km (326 mi) 53.05° 2 2 Success Unknown US Government Agency
Launched as a part of Starlink Group 7-16 mission.[41][42]
6 USA 354-374 v2.0 Mini 2024-096 22 May 2024
08:00
VSFB, SLC-4E 310 km (190 mi) 69.7° 21[43] 21[43] Success National Reconnaissance Office
Launched as a part of NROL-146 mission.[44]
7 USA 375-394 v2.0 Mini 29 June 2024
03:14
VSFB, SLC-4E 310 km (190 mi) 69.7° 20[43] 20[43] Success National Reconnaissance Office
Launched as a part of NROL-186 mission.[45]
8-11 USA v2.0 Mini 2024 TBA TBA TBA TBA TBA Planned National Reconnaissance Office
Launching as a part of NROL missions.

Other countries' reactions

A 2024 Chinese national security document speculated by claiming that the US government could in the future install ICBM interceptors on Starshield that could disable intercontinental ballistic missiles. They also noted the difficulty in distinguishing military and civilian satellites in a constellation.[46]

See also

References

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h FitzGerald, Micah Maidenberg and Drew. "Musk's SpaceX Forges Tighter Links With U.S. Spy and Military Agencies". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on 2024-03-22. Retrieved 2024-02-21.
  2. ^ Erwin, Sandra (2023-01-19). "With Starshield, SpaceX readies for battle". SpaceNews. Archived from the original on 2024-02-23. Retrieved 2023-09-10.
  3. ^ "SpaceX - Starshield". www.spacex.com. Archived from the original on December 14, 2022. Retrieved 2023-09-10.
  4. ^ Sheetz, Michael (2022-12-05). "SpaceX unveils 'Starshield,' a military variation of Starlink satellites". CNBC. Archived from the original on September 28, 2023. Retrieved 2023-09-21.
  5. ^ a b Erwin, Sandra (5 October 2020). "L3Harris, SpaceX win Space Development Agency contracts to build missile-warning satellites". SpaceNews. Archived from the original on 27 June 2021. Retrieved 1 December 2021.
  6. ^ Erwin, Sandra (21 April 2019). "Space Development Agency a huge win for Griffin in his war against the status quo". Archived from the original on 13 December 2023. Retrieved 1 January 2020.
  7. ^ Freedberg, Sydney (20 August 2018). "Space-Based Missile Defense Can Be Done: DoD R&D. Chief Griffin". Archived from the original on 29 September 2019. Retrieved 1 January 2020.
  8. ^ "Hypersonic Missile Defense: Issues for Congress". Congressional Research Service. 22 January 2022. Archived from the original on 23 May 2022. Retrieved 21 June 2022.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g "Exclusive: Musk's SpaceX is building spy satellite network for US intelligence agency, sources say". Reuters. 2024-03-16.
  10. ^ a b c Porter, Jon (2023-09-28). "SpaceX inks first Space Force deal for government-focused Starshield satellite network". The Verge. Archived from the original on 2024-01-05. Retrieved 2024-01-05.
  11. ^ Erwin, Sandra (2024-05-01). "NRO's first batch of next-generation spy satellites set for launch". SpaceNews. Retrieved 2024-05-18.
  12. ^ "SpaceX.com/Starshield". SpaceX. 2022. Archived from the original on 2024-02-21. Retrieved 2024-02-27.
  13. ^ a b Erwin, Sandra (5 October 2020). "L3Harris, SpaceX win Space Development Agency contracts to build missile-warning satellites". SpaceNews. Archived from the original on 27 June 2021. Retrieved 1 December 2021.
  14. ^ Berger, Eric (2024-04-18). "SpaceX and Northrop are working on a constellation of spy satellites". Ars Technica. Retrieved 2024-05-14.
  15. ^ "SpaceX reveals 'Starshield' satellite project for national security use". Space.com. 6 December 2022.
  16. ^ Joey Roulette, Marisa Taylor (2024-04-18). "Exclusive: Northrop Grumman working with Musk's SpaceX on U.S. spy satellite system". Reuters. Retrieved 2024-04-18.
  17. ^ Machi, Vivienne (1 June 2021). "US Military Places a Bet on LEO for Space Security". Space Development Agency. Archived from the original on 5 December 2021. Retrieved 1 December 2021. Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  18. ^ Erwin, Sandra (2 April 2022). "SpaceX launches 10 satellites for U.S. Space Development Agency". Archived from the original on 13 December 2023. Retrieved 1 June 2023.
  19. ^ Erwin, Sandra (2022-12-09). "Space Development Agency's first launch slips to March due to satellite glitch". SpaceNews. Archived from the original on 2023-12-13. Retrieved 2024-02-25.
  20. ^ "Elon Musk's SpaceX, Once a Washington Outsider, Courts Military Business". The Wall Street Journal. 4 November 2020. Archived from the original on 6 December 2021. Retrieved 1 December 2021.
  21. ^ "NDIA Appoints 16 Members to Board". GovCon Wire. 5 October 2021. Archived from the original on 5 December 2021. Retrieved 1 December 2021.
  22. ^ "Statement of General Terrence J. O'Shaugnessy before the Senate Armed Services Committee" (PDF). U.S. Senate. 13 February 2020. Archived (PDF) from the original on 4 November 2022. Retrieved 1 November 2022.
  23. ^ "Space Development Agency Makes Awards for 126 Satellites to Build Tranche 1 Transport Laye". U.S. Department of Defense. Retrieved 2023-08-23.
  24. ^ "How Elon Musk's satellites have saved Ukraine and changed warfare". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Archived from the original on 23 September 2023. Retrieved 2023-06-06.
  25. ^ a b Erwin, Sandra (2023-10-03). "SpaceX providing Starlink services to DoD under 'unique terms and conditions'". SpaceNews. Archived from the original on 2023-12-13. Retrieved 2024-02-25.
  26. ^ "SpaceX wins first Pentagon contract for Starshield". CNBC. 2023-09-27. Archived from the original on 2024-02-26. Retrieved 2024-02-27.
  27. ^ a b "Starlink's Starshield wins contract with US Space Force". 2023-09-27. Archived from the original on 28 September 2023. Retrieved 2023-09-28.
  28. ^ "House China committee demands Elon Musk open SpaceX Starshield internet to U.S. troops in Taiwan". CNBC. 2024-02-24. Archived from the original on 2024-02-25. Retrieved 2024-02-25.
  29. ^ "SpaceX May Be Withholding Satellite Internet in Taiwan, Congressman Contends". The Wall Street Journal. February 24, 2024. Archived from the original on 2024-02-25. Retrieved 2024-02-25.
  30. ^ "SpaceX Refutes Claim It's Withholding Starshield in Taiwan". Bloomberg.com. 2024-02-26. Retrieved 2024-02-28.
  31. ^ Erwin, Sandra (2024-06-11). "Pentagon embracing SpaceX's Starshield for future military satcom". SpaceNews. Retrieved 2024-06-12.
  32. ^ Lentz, Danny (2023-08-31). "SpaceX launches of Space Development Agency's Tranche 0 mission". NASASpaceFlight.com. Retrieved 2024-05-18.
  33. ^ "Tracking Layer Tranche-0 WFOV 1, ..., 4". Archived from the original on 10 June 2023. Retrieved 5 December 2022.
  34. ^ McDowell, Jonathan [@planet4589] (March 26, 2024). "Space-Track have cataloged objects from the Mar 19 Starlink launch and it is now confirmed that two secret satellites were aboard, USA 350 and USA 351 (presumed Starshield sats) that are cataloged as 2024-050W and X (59274 and 59275)" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  35. ^ Jiayao, Li (2024-03-22). "US seeks space hegemony via militarization". China Military. Retrieved 2024-05-29.