SpaceX’s launch services have already become an invaluable resource for the U.S. government, but the company is now jumping into the deep end of the pool it had heretofore only splashed around in. Starshield, a new vertical within SpaceX, will provide “government entities” (think three-letter agencies) with secure communications and bespoke satellite designs.
The new brand (possibly a subsidiary) appeared as a new top-line category on SpaceX’s website, alongside Dragon, Starlink and Starship, but beyond that has not received any visible promotion or discussion in the company’s media channels. I’ve asked the company for more details on certain aspects, but for now all there is to know is on the Starshield page.
The tagline is “supporting national security,” but it’s unclear as yet whether this will actually directly support military intelligence or operations, or restrict itself to, if not purely civilian, then less combat-forward roles. Satellite-sourced data — particularly live imagery — is of enormous importance to the military, which both produces its own with spysats and pays companies like BlackSky for it. While some other nations may be able to take advantage of some of these capabilities, laws limit how much can be sold abroad.
Although Starshield’s page uses the present tense, saying it provides certain services, it does not list any active missions or customers, so this is perhaps rhetorical. That said, the company claims to do Earth observation and secure communications, as well as satellite bus design.
Though SpaceX, through Starlink, has plenty of experience lofting satellites into orbit, that network was meant to be consumer-facing and general purpose, not a taskable asset like a spysat. If SpaceX has any of its own military-grade Earth observation satellites, it has been mighty quiet about designing and launching them. But Starlink’s success shows there is no reason why, in principle, the company should not be able to do so.
SpaceX says that this government-focused service will require “Starshield user equipment,” which likely resembles Starlink’s in operation but meets certain special standards of ruggedness, access, documentation and compatibility with existing networks and assets. As Starlink itself has multiple tiers of ground station, from ordinary consumer rooftop type to paired extra-tough nautical type, the Starshield version is probably going to be one of the high-end ones, souped up (for instance with “additional high-assurance cryptographic capability”) and with a price tag to match.
More importantly this move helps separate government work from consumer work. The company has lamented that its deployment of thousands of terminals in Ukraine has resulted in a quagmire of legal and financial finger-pointing: Ukraine can’t pay, its allies didn’t agree to pay and SpaceX can’t provide the expensive service for free indefinitely. This is partly because the whole network was really never meant to be used in this fashion, and grafting a military/aid operation onto a consumer product has led to unforeseen consequences.
By being more intentional about what services it provides government entities and under what terms, SpaceX probably hopes to avoid the blurred lines between being a global broadband provider and being a supplier of military intelligence. Both may be very profitable in their way, but rarely does one product serve both purposes adequately.
Image Credits: SpaceX
The company also claims to produce a modular satellite bus for diverse mission types, though again this is unsubstantiated — not to say it isn’t so, but the capability is simply stated, not shown with anything beyond a wireframe image.
Exactly how far SpaceX has gotten in achieving the capabilities it describes here is anyone’s guess — they may well have prototyped some of these things out already with some prospective customers, or this may just be a statement of intent with those customers in mind. Regardless of which is the case just now, it seems clear we will be hearing more about this service as its roles escape attempts at secrecy — for example, it is difficult to launch a major Earth observation satellite without anyone knowing.
I have asked SpaceX for more information on its customers and capabilities and will update this post if the company responds.