Just last December, SpaceX announced Starshield, a program to incorporate military or government entity payloads on board a customized satellite bus. Recently, the Pentagon announced that it had awarded SpaceX the first confirmed contract for the Starshield satellite Internet system.
The award came alongside 18 other companies through a program run by the Space Force’s Commercial Satellite Communications Office (CSCO), which is part of the Space Systems Command’s (SSC’s) Commercial Services Office (COMSO). Space Force confirmed that SpaceX was awarded a one-year contract for Starshield with a maximum value of $70 million.
As previously reported, COMSO was set up to assess and secure commercial services, ranging from traditional satellite communications to satellite imagery. It is responsible for most space-related commercial services for the Space Force, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. This includes the fielding and sustaining of lethal and resilient space capabilities for warfighters. As part of this effort, the command is responsible for launch operations, on-orbit checkout, developmental testing, sustainment, and maintenance of military satellite constellations, and other Department of Defense (DoD) space systems.
The U.S. Space Force currently has around $900 million in work orders through 2028 under its new “Proliferated Low Earth Orbit” contracts program, which is meant to tap into communications services of satellites orbiting from 100 miles to 1,000 miles above Earth.
SpaceX will also receive about $15 million in funding to support 54 “mission partners” across the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Coast Guard.
Starshield vs. Starlink
SpaceX has provided only a few details about the intended scope and capabilities of its Starshield initiative but it has marketed the service as being distinct from its Starlink consumer and enterprise network, while also touting that it is an “end-to-end” platform that was developed with national security capabilities. This could include launch vehicles, satellites, and user terminals.
“While Starlink is designed for consumer and commercial use, Starshield is designed for government use, with an initial focus on three areas: Earth observation, communications, and hosted payloads,” the company said on its website, and added, ” SpaceX’s ongoing work with the Department of Defense and other partners demonstrates our ability to provide in-space and on-ground capability at scale.”
The Pentagon has been skeptical of the Starlink network, which utilizes highly proprietary technology, and therefore cannot be easily integrated into the hybrid architecture that the DoD is seeking to create.
Starshield is reported to include satellites with sensing payloads that can deliver processed data directly to the user, as well as secure global communications and user equipment, and even customized satellite buses. The Starshield satellites will be equipped with laser terminals to make them interoperable with the U.S. military’s satellites – and that could fulfill a key requirement of the DoD, as it has sought to employ commercial low Earth orbit satellite capacity to transport data collected by remote sensing systems.
This could make it well-suited to working with Space Force’s CSCO.
“The SpaceX contract provides for Starshield end-to-end service (via the Starlink constellation), user terminals, ancillary equipment, network management and other related services,” Space Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek told CNBC.
More Starlink Satellites Needed
However, as SpaceNews reported, some of the more advanced capabilities advertised by Starshield will likely not be available until SpaceX deploys its second-generation Starlink satellites. Those are expected to be larger than the first-generation Starlink satellites and could be designed with performance features needed to host national security payloads, while also being able to deliver higher levels of encryption than the commercial Starlink service.
To date, SpaceX has launched around 3,500 of its first-generation Starlink satellites, while it has recently been awarded licensing approval to develop Gen2 spacecraft.
This recent award to SpaceX followed a June Pentagon contract to supply an undefined number of Starlink ground terminals to Ukraine.