Elon Musk’s company SpaceX has won a contract to build satellites for the U.S. Department of Defense, its first contract to build satellites for the military.
In the announcement yesterday, October 5 from the Space Development Agency, SpaceX was awarded $149 million to build four satellites, while defense contractor L3Harris was also awarded $193.5 million for another four satellites.
The satellites will be designed to track intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), reported Reuters, as part of a programme known as the Tracking Layer. The idea is to use satellites with a wide field of view to provide constant coverage of the entire world.
“The capability demonstrated by the Tracking Layer Tranche 0 will provide missile warning and tracking information to national defense authorities, and tracking and cueing data for missile defense elements,” the Space Development Agency said in a statement.
All eight satellites will need to be ready by September 2022, reported Space News, with each having infrared capabilities for “detecting and tracking advanced missile threats from low Earth orbit”.
SpaceX’s design for its satellites will be based on its Starlink mega constellation, a proposed group of more than 12,000 satellites that will beam internet to Earth from orbit. Already SpaceX has launched more than 700 Starlink satellites across more than a dozen launches, including another launch today.
It’s not clear quite how these new military satellites will compare to existing Starlink satellites, and it’s not likely that information will be released. But this contract is a major boon for SpaceX as it continues to cement its position as the world’s leading private space company.
SpaceX says it is able to build Starlink satellites rapidly, at a rate of 120 per month. Their flat-packed design allows them to be launched in stacks of 60, before they are then separated in orbit. Eventually they will be able to talk to each other via laser communication.
Space Development Agency Director Derek Tournear, speaking to Space News, said that SpaceX’s proposal to use the same satellite design as its Starlink satellites was “extremely credible”. He added: “The selection is on technical merit but the schedule takes top priority.”
While SpaceX has launched satellites for the U.S. military before, it has not yet built military satellites. Already, however, the U.S. Army has shown interest in using its Starlink network for its activities on Earth, and now that same satellite technology looks like it might be used elsewhere too.