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.

Source link

#Musks #SpaceX #building #spy #satellite #network #intelligence #agency #sources

North Korea claims its third attempt to put a spy satellite into orbit was successful

North Korea claimed on Wednesday to have successfully placed a spy satellite into orbit with its third launch attempt this year, demonstrating the nation’s determination to build a space-based surveillance system during protracted tensions with the United States.

The North’s claim could not immediately be independently confirmed. But the launch was certain to invite strong condemnation from the United States and its partners because the U.N. bans North Korea from conducting satellite launches, calling them covers for tests of missile technology.

The North’s space authorities said in a statement that its space launch vehicle placed the Malligyong-1 satellite into orbit on Tuesday night following liftoff from the country’s main launch center and an intended flight.

The statement said that leader Kim Jong Un observed the launch. It said the fired spy satellite would enhance North Korea’s war readiness in response to its rivals’ hostile military moves and that more would be launched at an early date.

South Korea and Japan said earlier that they detected the North Korean launch. The Japanese government briefly issued a J-Alert missile warning for Okinawa, urging residents to take shelter inside buildings or underground. South Korea’s military said it maintains its readiness in close coordination with the U.S. and Japan.

“Even if North Korea calls it a satellite, the firing that uses ballistic missile technology is a clear violation to related United Nations Security Council resolutions,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said. “It is also a serious threat that affects the safety of the people.”

A spy satellite is among the key military assets coveted by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who wants to modernize his weapons systems to cope with what he calls escalating U.S. threats. North Korea attempted to launch a spy satellite twice earlier this year, but both launches ended in failure due to technical issues.

North Korea had vowed a third launch would take place sometime in October. But it didn’t follow through or give a reason for not following that launch plan. South Korean officials have said the delay occurred likely because North Korea was receiving Russian technological assistance for its spy satellite launch program.

North Korea and Russia, both U.S. adversaries that are increasingly isolated globally, have been pushing hard to expand their relationships in recent months. In September, Kim traveled to Russia’s Far East to meet President Vladimir Putin and visit key military sites, touching off intense speculation of a weapons deal between the two nations.

The alleged deal involves North Korea supplying conventional arms to refill Russia’s ammunition stock drained in its war with Ukraine. In return, foreign governments and experts say that North Korea seeks Russian help in enhancing its nuclear and other military programs.

During Kim’s Russia visit, Putin told state media that his country would help North Korea build satellites, saying Kim “shows keen interest in rocket technology.”

Russia and North Korea dismissed the allegation on their arms transfer deal as groundless. Such a deal would violate U.N. bans on any weapons trading involving North Korea.

The White House said in October that North Korea had delivered more than 1,000 containers of military equipment and munitions to Russia. But South Korean Defense Minister Shin Wonsik said this week that North Korea had sent about 3,000 such containers to Russia.

Kim previously said North Korea needed spy satellites to better monitor South Korean and U.S. activities and enhance the effective use of its nuclear missiles. But South Korea has said a North Korean spy launch program also involves its efforts to manufacture more powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“If North Korea succeeds in launching the military reconnaissance satellite, it would signify that North Korea’s ICBM capabilities have been taken to a higher level,” South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said in written responses to questions from The Associated Press last week. “Therefore, we will have to come up with reinforced countermeasures.”

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said Tuesday’s launch raises more questions than answers, such as whether the North Korean satellite actually performs reconnaissance functions and whether Russia provided technical and even material assistance.

“What is already clear is that this is not a one-off event but part of a North Korean strategy of prioritizing military capabilities over economic development, threatening rather than reconciling with South Korea, and further aligning with Russia and China instead of pursuing diplomacy with the United States,” Easley said.

Since last year, North Korea conducted about 100 missile tests in a bid to establish a reliable arsenal of nuclear weapons targeting the U.S. and its allies. Many foreign experts say North Korea has some last remaining technologies to master to acquire functioning nuclear missiles.

But they say that possessing a rocket that can place a satellite into orbit would mean North Korea can build a missile capable of carrying a warhead with a similar size of the satellite.

South Korea’s military recently suggested it could suspend a 2018 inter-Korean agreement to reduce tensions and resume front-line aerial surveillance and firing exercises, if the North went ahead with its launch.

Japan’s coast guard said earlier Tuesday that North Korea had told Tokyo that it would launch a satellite sometime between Wednesday and Nov. 30.

The U.S., South Korea and Japan subsequently urged North Korea to cancel the launch. They had earlier condemned North Korea’s two previous satellite launches as violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions. But permanent council members Russia and China have stymied any Security Council response.

In June, Kim’s sister and senior ruling party official, Kim Yo Jong, called the U.N. Security Council “a political appendage” of the United States. She slammed the U.N. council for allegedly being “discriminative and rude,” saying it only takes issue with the North’s satellite launches while thousands of satellites launched by other countries are already operating.

In the two previous launches in May and August, North Korea used its new Chollima-1 rocket to carry the Malligyong-1 reconnaissance satellite.

In the first attempt, the North Korean rocket carrying the satellite crashed into the ocean soon after liftoff. North Korean authorities said the rocket lost thrust after the separation of its first and second stages. After the second launch failure, North Korea said there was an error in the emergency blasting system during the third-stage flight.

South Korea retrieved debris from the first launch and called the satellite too crude to perform military reconnaissance.

Some civilian experts said North Korea’s Malligyong-1 satellite is likely capable only of detecting big targets like warships or planes. But by operating several such satellites, North Korea could still observe South Korea at all times, they said. In April, Kim Jong Un said North Korea must launch several satellites.

Besides spy satellites, Kim is eager to introduce other sophisticated weapons such as more mobile ICBMs, nuclear-powered submarines and multi-warhead missiles. Observers say Kim would ultimately want to use an enlarged weapons arsenal to wrest greater U.S. concessions like sanctions relief when diplomacy resumes.

In response, the U.S. and South Korea have been expanding their regular military exercises that sometimes included U.S. strategic assets such as long-range bombers, a nuclear-armed submarine and aircraft carriers. On Tuesday, the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its battle group arrived at a South Korean port in a fresh demonstration of strength against North Korea.

Source link

#North #Korea #claims #attempt #put #spy #satellite #orbit #successful