Musk’s SpaceX is building spy satellite network for U.S. intelligence agency, sources say

SpaceX is building a network of hundreds of spy satellites under a classified contract with a U.S. intelligence agency, five sources familiar with the program said, demonstrating deepening ties between billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s space company and national security agencies.

The network is being built by SpaceX’s Starshield business unit under a $1.8 billion contract signed in 2021 with the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), an intelligence agency that manages spy satellites, the sources said.

The plans show the extent of SpaceX’s involvement in U.S. intelligence and military projects and illustrate a deeper Pentagon investment into vast, low-Earth orbiting satellite systems aimed at supporting ground forces.

Also Read |Starlink: Why the new sovereign of low-earth orbit is bad news

If successful, the sources said the program would significantly advance the ability of the U.S. government and military to quickly spot potential targets almost anywhere on the globe.

The contract signals growing trust by the intelligence establishment of a company whose owner has clashed with the Biden administration and sparked controversy over the use of Starlink satellite connectivity in the Ukraine war, the sources said.

The Wall Street Journal reported in February the existence of a $1.8 billion classified Starshield contract with an unknown intelligence agency without detailing the purposes of the program.

Reuters reporting discloses for the first time that the SpaceX contract is for a powerful new spy system with hundreds of satellites bearing Earth-imaging capabilities that can operate as a swarm in low orbits, and that the spy agency that Mr. Musk’s company is working with is the NRO.

Reuters was unable to determine when the new network of satellites would come online and could not establish what other companies are part of the program with their contracts.

SpaceX, the world’s largest satellite operator, did not respond to several requests for comment about the contract, its role in it and details on satellite launches. The Pentagon referred a request for comment to the NRO and SpaceX.

In a statement the NRO acknowledged its mission to develop a sophisticated satellite system and its partnerships with other government agencies, companies, research institutions and nations, but declined to comment on Reuters’ findings about the extent of SpaceX’s involvement in the effort.

“The National Reconnaissance Office is developing the most capable, diverse, and resilient space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance system the world has ever seen,” a spokesperson said.

The satellites can track targets on the ground and share that data with U.S. intelligence and military officials, the sources said. In principle, that would enable the U.S. government to quickly capture continuous imagery of activities on the ground nearly anywhere on the globe, aiding intelligence and military operations, they added.

Roughly a dozen prototypes have been launched since 2020, among other satellites on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, three of the sources said.

A U.S. government database of objects in orbit shows several SpaceX missions having deployed satellites that neither the company nor the government have ever acknowledged. Two sources confirmed those to be prototypes for the Starshield network.

All the sources asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to discuss the U.S. government program.

The Pentagon is already a big SpaceX customer, using its Falcon 9 rockets to launch military payloads into space. Starshield’s first prototype satellite, launched in 2020, was part of a separate, roughly $200 million contract that helped position SpaceX for the subsequent $1.8 billion award, one of the sources said.

The planned Starshield network is separate from Starlink, SpaceX’s growing commercial broadband constellation that has about 5,500 satellites in space to provide near-global internet to consumers, companies and government agencies.

The classified constellation of spy satellites represents one of the U.S. government’s most sought-after capabilities in space because it is designed to offer the most persistent, pervasive and rapid coverage of activities on Earth.

“No one can hide,” one of the sources said of the system’s potential capability, when describing the network’s reach.

Mr. Musk, also the founder and CEO of Tesla and owner of social media company X, has driven innovation in space but has caused frustration among some officials in the Biden administration because of his past control of Starlink in Ukraine, where Kyiv’s military uses it for secure communications in the conflict with Russia. That authority over Starlink in a war zone by Mr. Musk, and not the U.S. military, created tension between him and the U.S. government.

A series of Reuters’ stories has detailed how Mr. Musk’s manufacturing operations, including at SpaceX, have harmed consumers and workers.

The Starshield network is part of intensifying competition between the U.S. and its rivals to become the dominant military power in space, in part by expanding spy satellite systems away from bulky, expensive spacecraft at higher orbits. Instead a vast, low-orbiting network can provide quicker and near-constant imaging of the Earth.

China also plans to start building its own satellite constellations, and the Pentagon has warned of space weapon threats from Russia, which could be capable of disabling entire satellite networks.

Starshield aims to be more resilient to attacks from sophisticated space powers.

The network is also intended to greatly expand the U.S. government’s remote-sensing capabilities and will consist of large satellites with imaging sensors, as well as a greater number of relay satellites that pass the imaging data and other communications across the network using inter-satellite lasers, two of the sources said.

The NRO includes personnel from the U.S. Space Force and CIA and provides classified satellite imagery for the Pentagon and other intelligence agencies.

The spy satellites will house sensors provided by another company, three of the sources said.

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Explained | What is a Reusable Launch Vehicle? Who is using it now? How far along is India?

Inching closer to a fully reusable launch vehicle, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully carried out the landing experiment of the Reusable Launch Vehicle-Technology Demonstration (RLV-TD) programme on April 2, 2023.

ISRO executed the landing experiment at the Aeronautical Test Range in Challakere, Chitradurga. The RLV was dropped by an Indian Air Force (IAF) Chinook helicopter from an altitude of 4.5 km. The vehicle performed approach and landing manoeuvres on the runway autonomously, under the conditions in which a re-entry vehicle from space might return — at high speed and without human inputs, to achieve a stable landing.

The success of this test marks yet another milestone in ISRO’s mission to develop a fully reusable launch vehicle as part of its vision to enable low-cost access to space.

Currently, ISRO has three active launch vehicles: the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), and the Launch Vehicle Mark-III (LVM3). The PSLV has four stages while the GSLVs have three stages each. Each stage has a different fuel, and is jettisoned when the fuel is expended as the rocket ascends.

What is a reusable launch vehicle?

Primarily, launch vehicles comprise three or four stages apart from the payload, which needs to be launched into a polar or a geosynchronous orbit, depending on a mission’s requirements. In ISRO’s three-stage rockets, the first — or lowermost— stage has a motor fuelled by solid fuel (in the GSLV, this can also be augmented by up to four liquid strap-on boosters); the second stage has the Vikas engine powered by liquid fuel; and the third and uppermost stage has a cryogenic engine, which uses liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.

LVM3(Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk III)

In the four-stage PSLV, the first stage has a motor using solid fuel (augmentable with up to six solid-fuel strap-on boosters), the second stage has a Vikas engine, the third stage again has a solid-fuel motor, and the fourth stage has two liquid engines.

The RLV that ISRO is building has only two stages to propel the vehicle into orbit. Once the fuel in the first stage has been expended, the vehicle will shed it, and carry on with the second stage. Once it has been shed, the first stage will re-enter the atmosphere and land in an autonomous fashion at a pre-determined location. After some maintenance, it will be available for reuse.

Have RLVs been used in the past?

Since the 1960s, experts have conceived reusable rockets as a way to lower the cost of space missions. In the most idealised version, they imagined a single-stage-to-orbit rocket that could take off and land vertically.

The American aerospace manufacturing company McDonnell Douglas realised this dream in 1993, building the Delta Clipper (DC-X) to demonstrate lift-off, maintain altitude, and a landing on its tail. The project was later transferred to NASA’s Reusable Launch Vehicle program after the cost of each test flight proved to be too expensive. In its twelfth flight in 1996, the DC-X crashed and burned on landing, extensively damaging its exterior chassis.

NASA later shelved the project due to budgetary constraints, bringing this chapter of the single-stage to-orbit launch vehicle to an end.

The DC-X backs into its parking spot at White Sands in September 1993

The DC-X backs into its parking spot at White Sands in September 1993
| Photo Credit:
 Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis

What reusable technologies are currently in play in spaceflight?

Several DC-X engineers subsequently moved to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s space company Blue Origin. On November 23, 2015, Blue Origin’s reusable space vehicle ‘New Shepherd’ successfully undertook a suborbital flight, reaching an altitude of 329,839 feet, and then performed a controlled landing back at its launch site in West Texas with the help of a parachute drop.

Perhaps the most famous player in the reusable spaceflight sector is is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, founded in 2001. Both Blue Origin and SpaceX, among others, are developing rockets with reusable parts, especially the first stage, rather than the whole vehicle being reusable.

SpaceX initially attempted to salvage the rocket’s first stage using parachutes; but the boosters would break before the parachutes were deployed.

Then came the Falcon 9 in 2010, a 54-metre-tall two-stage rocket with nine engines, capable of transporting cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS). Instead of using parachutes to recover the first stage, the Falcon 9 was equipped with retrograde thrusters, using which the first stage could come back down to a designated spot using its engines themselves.

Initially, Falcon 9 attempted soft landings in the ocean as they did not have a landing site. After several failures, on its 20th attempt, a Falcon 9 was launched with a light payload to the ISS. Ten minutes after launch, the first stage — its duty done — turned back down and descended smoothly at a landing pad at Cape Canaveral.

Thus far (May 19, 2023), Falcon 9 first stages have had 220 launches, 178 landings and 155 re-flights.

In addition to these companies, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the United Launch Alliance (ULA), the European Space Agency (ESA), and ISRO have also been undertaking R&D on other aspects of reusable launch systems.

What is ISRO working on?

In 2010, ISRO began developing a winged reusable rocket, taking the first step towards realising a two-stage-to-orbit (TSTO) launch vehicle that could be fully reusable. On May 23, 2016, the winged vehicle successfully flew at hypersonic speed. It also withstood fiery re-entry temperatures as it re-entered, qualifying its thermal protection systems, before it touched down at a pre-determined site 425 km east of Sriharikota, in the Bay of Bengal.

RLV HEX-01 mission

RLV HEX-01 mission

While several other related technologies have been tested through the years, ISRO’s RLV’s autonomous landing was only tested successfullyon April 2, 2023.

Currently, ISRO is working on the ‘Orbital Re-entry Experiment’ (ORE), which will be taken to orbit by a modified launch vehicle comprising existing GSLV and PSLV stages. The vehicle will stay in orbit for a stipulated period, re-enter, and finally land autonomously on a runway, with landing gear.

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