Thursday, January 19, 2023

SpaceX Quietly Announces New Business

I only found out today via SpaceNews that SpaceX quietly launched a new venture some time last month.  

Now that SpaceX has established itself as a leading provider of U.S. national security launches, it is seeking a bigger share of the defense market with a new product line called Starshield. SpaceX quietly unveiled Starshield last month offering defense and intelligence agencies custom-built spacecraft, sensors, and secure communications services leveraging SpaceX’s investment in its Starlink network of broadband satellites.

I also somehow hadn't heard that last October, the Pentagon released a national defense strategy document that talked about the challenges of the current "world order" and especially the role of China.  The pentagon calls China a “pacing challenge” that threatens to surpass the United States in defense and space technologies. To win this race, DoD intends to tap commercial innovation.

“We have in the United States by far the most resilient commercial space enterprise anywhere in the world. The Chinese know that, and we’re going to lean into that,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said Dec. 8 at an Aspen Security Forum in Washington. “We’re going to make sure we’re working closely with the commercial sector and leveraging all that commercial space capability.”

Who better to tap than the most innovative company in the launch business, the company using that launch capability to build out its Starlink constellation of internet access satellites?  Which isn't to say that there won't be competitive selection processes involved or that there aren't innovative "smart fellers" in the other companies; it's just that SpaceX has a head start.  They're at the center of the what  prompted the DoD to start this project.  It appears to be based on one important example (you guessed it): Ukraine and the role that modern technologies have played, especially the 20,000 + Starlink terminals SpaceX donated to Ukraine.

Russia’s war in Ukraine cast a powerful spotlight on the space industry, notably on the value of imaging satellites and on SpaceX’s satellite broadband service Starlink. The system — with well over 3,000 satellites in orbit and thousands more to come — demonstrated resilience against jamming and showed the strength of this kind of proliferated architecture.

“This wasn’t available before,” John Plumb, assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said Dec. 14 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Ukraine is the first major conflict, he noted, where commercial space technology has come into play in a significant way.

The Starlink constellations and their resilience to jamming as a commercial product, not a military system impressed assistant secretary Plumb and Heidi Shyu, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering enough to commit to the initiative aimed at private space.  “Because of the rapidly improving commercial space capabilities, a comprehensive plan for using commercial space systems in the context of classified U.S. space capabilities is needed.”

The Starshield initiative hasn't been talked about much by SpaceX which is why none of us have heard of it before.  SpaceNews reported that SpaceX’s website has coverage of Starshield so I went looking for it and it turned up at the first search I tried:  

Screen capture from a portion of their Starshield page.

The source article on SpaceNews is an interesting read. SpaceX isn't the only company they mention and the market is big enough that more than one will be involved.  The realization that commercial space is the future and government money is going to flow toward it is spreading.  What the DoD wants is defense technologies at the innovation rate of commercial technologies.



  1. I was aware of it but not its name. Of course, Starlink joins Iridium and OneWeb in contributions of DoD-related features and technologies. Starlink "just happens" to be the leader in this sort of thing... can't figure out why...

  2. Ha. Haha. Hahahaha....

    All those hidebound legacy aerospace companies, from launchers to sat makers, must be expelling some serious amount of poop.

    Shows what happens when you stop innovating and inventing and pushing the tech envelope.

  3. I think Pournelle called this the "high frontier".

  4. DoD has been pushing for this capability for a while. There have been articles in Military & Aerospace, and in Microwave & RF magazines that were originally about RFPs for a "mesh network in space, linked with optical backhaul" and later for internet over COTS satellites with DoD traffic tunneling on the same sats. I mentioned it elsewhere in 2021

    Nick Flandrey says:
    22 December 2021 at 21:21 (Edit) (Spam) (Trash) (Delete)

    Starlink is probably just a cover for the real customer, US DoD. If it makes money that's a bonus.

    I've talked about it before. The US DoD wants new satellites, specifically an internet in space, with mesh networking, optical 'free space' links, etc. and they don't want to build it. They want to rent it.

    Previous articles have been coy. This one isn't. It's also not well written, and long, but if you have any interest in the subjects covered, it's worth the read.

    Overall, the Pentagon is signaling a desire to shift to a lot of small satellites instead of larger and more expensive ones. The SDA, part of the Pentagon’s Office of the Secretary of Defense, is working with L3Harris and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) in Hawthorne, Calif., on this. The latter of which will use their Starlink design, created to provide better broadband internet access for commercial and military customers, as a jumping-off point.

    Also consider that Musk talked about the vulnerability of single satellites and DoD desire to have multiples, with a very sly look on his face in an interview. Remember when 'the world's astronomers' complained that starlink sats were blocking out the stars, and Musk just shrugged and said "we'll look at reducing albedo". Then the astronomers just shut up about it... Musk must have some very powerful advocates or secret backers to push thru his approval for tens of thousands of satellites...


  5. There were a couple articles I linked even a year before those articles too..

    Nick Flandrey says:
    2 October 2020 at 08:51 (Edit) (Spam) (Trash) (Delete)

    @marcelo, there are a couple of articles that describe why Starlink will succeed, or at least become the Iridium of data carriers…

    THE MIL & AERO COMMENTARY – The U.S. Air Force is drawing from a deepening well of commercially available satellite communications (SATCOM) technology to enhance military internet tactical networking for warfighters on the ground, in the air, and at sea.

    The idea is to capitalize on commercial communications satellite constellations under development to reduce military SATCOM costs, as well as enhance reliability and data throughput.

    Officials of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, awarded contracts last week to L3Harris Technologies and to Northrop Grumman Corp. for the Defense Experimentation Using the Commercial Space Internet (DEUCSI) program.

    This project seeks the ability to move and share data seamlessly among a wide variety of fixed and mobile operating locations using constantly available, high-bandwidth, beyond-line-of-sight communications.

    This new capability will be called path-agnostic communications because its users will be able to communicate reliably to any location in the world without explicitly specifying which nodes of a communication network to use.

    WASHINGTON – As the U.S. Space Force looks to expand military communications capabilities in the far north, it is facing a problem. Defense News reports. Continue reading original article

    The Military & Aerospace Electronics take:

    29 May 2020 — The global pandemic has hit satellite communications (SATCOM) startups exponentially hard, and OneWeb, one of the companies aiming to provide internet to Arctic locations, filed for bankruptcy in March.

    The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is considering taking action to help fortify OneWeb and other vulnerable commercial space startups, says Lt. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of Headquarters U.S. Space Force.

    Thompson does not lay out options under consideration by the Pentagon to aid OneWeb, but says the department’s Space Acquisition Council devised a list of proposed investments for space companies that need rapid, aggressive action.

    –Once there’s an acronym you know it will never die.



    1. Thanks for those, Nick. That's very good and useful history stuff you've posted there.

      While I still get Microwaves & RF magazine, having just crossed seven years retired (which still astounds me) I'm not reading as much as I used to and what I read tends to be technical stuff that interests me. Not so much the business side. Even then, my last 20 years was entirely private sector, so government contracts weren't all that interesting before I retired.

    2. Yep, been about 10 years since I quit doing the work I was doing, with projects for the occasional defense or .gov contractor, but I still find the trade magazines to be both interesting and useful. When DoD says they want to throw money at something, people line up with buckets, and that something comes into existence (if at all possible.)

      I like their shift in emphasis to supporting and if necessary, becoming the guaranteed customer of smaller or new tech businesses too.

      Add in my interest in ham radio, disaster preparedness, governance, and infrastructure, and learning about FirstNet, narrow banding, 5G deployment, or even just MIMO antenna systems before the general public makes it worth the time it takes to read a few magazines. And I generally read them in the smallest room in the house, when I am not really doing anything else productive....

      At the end of the day, it's fun to keep track and to watch some of the stuff unfold. (and NOT fun to watch stuff like omni present surveillance and "smart cities" come into existence, but at least I know what those funny looking things and boxes on light poles are.)


  6. I am not at all surprised. And SpaceX is most likely the one able to do it, to the comment about other "competitors" above.

    Pournelle has some wonderful writing about the period of time where Terrans are just trying to leave Earth and establish Solar Systems colonies. They are collected, I believe, in "High Justice" and "Exiles to Glory".

  7. I heard about this a few weeks after the Ukes got their Starlink terminals. Did Musk do this on his own, or did the DOD say, "okay, hotshot, let's see if what you say actually works"?

    1. Air Force Research Labs in Dayton has been involved with Starlink since the earliest days that the network was active. There was activity before this but they were pretty quiet about it. I sat in an Air Force briefing before I retired in 2018. They were quietly supporting OneWeb as well.

    2. Sorry - hit enter before I realized I posted anonymously.

  8. My guess is that the starlink use for secure battle management, info gathering, etc is a beta test for the systems DoD wants to field for US troops. After all, someone stepped up to pay for them when Musk mentioned he wasn't willing to keep financing them out of pocket.

    Balance that with the situation buying twiitter... he finds out the company isn't worth what he thought, they can't meet his technical discovery needs, but a week later twiitter has gone to Uncle Sugar and the judicial branch says "you gotta buy it" and suddenly the sale is done. I think there are at least two factions in fedgov- one supporting him, one thwarting him... and they are fighting a turf war.

    I hope his personal security is very very good. One guy controlling 60% of the world's access to space, and almost 100% of the US's access, who makes inflammatory public statements, has got to be on some peoples' short list for a small aircraft crash, or single vehicle accident....

    And yeah, I get it about how something like that sounds, but given the current world situation, clearly that sort of thing is back on the table.

    Since he's done more for mankind's leap to space than anyone living, I'd like to have him continue doing what he does for a long time...

  9. I just hope that Space-X has figured out how to do a superior job of hardening against radiation and EMP with the satellites and control systems. I have no doubt that China will use nukes in space to damage or destroy as many satellites as possible if things go hot. China has proven that they don't mind creating space junk that could take out a large percentage of everything in orbit, so that is another consideration.

    1. Radiation, like a concentrated neutron beam for example, is radically different from EMP. The energy in a 50,000 V/m EMP pulse is concentrated below 1 MHz and is weaker than the regular signals in a receiver even in the 2-30MHz region. I have some plots and numbers in my really old EMP series, first article. Starlink operates on frequencies more than 1,000x higher than where EMP stops being strong.

      What makes EMP scary on the ground is the enormous "antennas" that the power grid and phone systems make. Broadband antennas (like we all tend to like for convenience) collect more energy than narrowband antennas.

      As for a particle beam weapon? I have no ideas. I just don't know if they have such things.

    2. Wish it were as simple as that but it isn't. The front end LNAs in phased array receive antennas are vulnerable to being spiked by EMP despite the rejection of the radiator at low frequencies unless protected by specialized receiver protector circuitry. Please don't ask me how I know...