SpaceX’s launch services have already become an invaluable resource for the US government, but the company is now jumping into the deep end of a pool where it previously only splashed around. Starshield, a new vertical within SpaceX, will provide “government agencies” (think three-letter agencies) with secure communications and custom satellite designs.
The new brand (perhaps a subsidiary) appeared as a new top-level category on SpaceX’s website alongside Dragon, Starlink and Starship, but beyond that there was no visible promotion or discussion on the company’s media channels. I asked the company for more details on certain aspects, but for now all you need to know is on the Starshield page.
The slogan is “supporting national security,” but it’s not yet clear whether it will actually support military intelligence or operations directly, or whether it will limit itself to less combat-capable roles, if not purely civilian. Satellite data, especially live footage, is critical to the military, which both produces itself with spies and pays companies like BlackSky for it. Although some other states may use some of these facilities, laws limit how much can be sold abroad.
Although Starshield’s page uses the present tense and says it provides certain services, it doesn’t mention any active missions or clients, so this is perhaps rhetorical. However, the company claims to be involved in Earth observation and secure communications, as well as satellite bus design.
While SpaceX has plenty of experience launching satellites through Starlink, the network was meant to be consumer and general-purpose, not a spy-duty asset. If SpaceX has any of its own military-grade Earth observation satellites, it has been very quiet about designing and launching them. But Starlink’s success shows that, in principle, there’s no reason why a company can’t do just that.
SpaceX says this government-oriented service will require “Starshield user equipment” similar to Starlink’s operation, but meeting certain specific standards for robustness, access, documentation and compatibility with existing networks and assets. Since Starlink itself has several tiers of ground stations, from the common consumer rooftop type to the extra rugged marine type, the Starshield version will likely be one of the higher end versions (eg cryptographic capability with “extra high security”) and a price tag to match with
More importantly, this move helps separate government business from consumer business. The company lamented that deploying thousands of terminals in Ukraine has led to a legal and financial quagmire: Ukraine can’t pay, allies won’t agree to pay, and SpaceX can’t provide expensive service. free indefinitely. This is partly because the entire network has never really been used in this way, and the distribution of a military/aid operation into a consumer product has had unintended consequences.
By paying more attention to what services it provides to government agencies and under what terms, SpaceX apparently hopes to avoid the blurred lines between being a global broadband provider and a supplier of military intelligence. Both can be very beneficial, but rarely does one product adequately serve both purposes.
Image credits: SpaceX
The company also claims to produce a modular satellite bus for various mission types, though this is again unsubstantiated – not to say it isn’t, but the capability is merely stated, not shown in anything other than a wireframe drawing.
Exactly how far SpaceX is in achieving the capabilities described here is anyone’s guess – they may have already prototyped some of these things with some potential customers, or it may just be a statement of intent with those customers in mind. Whatever the case, it seems clear that we’ll be hearing more about the service because its roles avoid attempts at secrecy — for example, it’s hard to launch a large Earth-observation satellite without anyone knowing.
I’ve asked SpaceX for more information about its customers and capabilities, and I’ll update this post if the company responds.