Starlink, for all intents and purposes, has been a runaway success, surpassing one million subscribers in record time.
SpaceX, given the widespread adoption and popularity of the program, has decided to extend its offering to government entities via a program called Starshield.
In this article, I will detail what we currently know about Starshield, when it might go live, and who potential customers could be.
What Is Starshield?
Starshield, which was first unveiled in December 2022, is a connectivity service that utilizes SpaceX’s Starlink satellites.
However, unlike Starlink, Starshield is not aimed at consumers like you and me but at government entities primarily.
“Starshield leverages SpaceX’s Starlink technology and launch capability to support national security efforts,” SpaceX’s Starshield page reads.
The Starshield program will initially focus on three main areas, namely:
- Earth observation: launching satellites with sensing payloads and delivering processed data directly to the user
- Communications: providing assured global communications to government users with Starshield user equipment
- Hosted payloads: building satellite buses to support the most demanding customer payload missions
Moreover, the system takes advantage of Starlink’s built-in end-to-end user data encryption while adding cryptographic capabilities to host classified payloads and process data securely.
For now, it is unclear what type of satellite design SpaceX will adapt. However, it can be assumed that it’s mimicking V1.5 or V2 Mini’s in terms of size.
That notion is supported by the fact that Starshield satellites are compatible with, and interconnect to, the existing commercial Starlink fleet via optical inter-satellite links (ISL).
Interoperability ensures continuous uptime and makes the overall system more resilient against attacks such as signal jamming – something Starlink has proven to be resilient against in the past.
Lastly, those satellites will likely be transported on board SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket given the current testing stage of its Starship program (the Starship rocket will eventually host the even bigger V2 sats).
When Will Starshield Become Available?
Starshield is likely already live and operational – at least judging by the fact that it landed its first official customer back in September 2023.
The US Space Force awarded a $70 million contract to SpaceX on September 1st alongside 18 other companies.
“The SpaceX contract provides for Starshield end-to-end service (via the Starlink constellation), user terminals, ancillary equipment, network management and other related services,” said Space Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek in an interview with CNBC.
In the previous months, SpaceX was actively hiring for various positions supporting the imitative.
SpaceX currently advertises over 40 open positions under its careers section just for Starshield alone. Some of those positions include:
- Antenna Engineers working on advanced antenna and feed systems for next-generation products, including phased array and reflector products, to support U.S. National Security efforts.
- Build Engineers who develop, manage, and improve satellite production processes or focus on expanding its ground station network.
- Guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) engineers to optimize satellite orbit control, implement collision avoidance systems, as well as constellation analysis
… and many more. Interestingly, many of those open positions are aimed at junior-level employees, indicating that there’s already a dedicated leadership team in place that drives the program forward.
Who Are Starshield Customers?
The Pentagon, apart from the US Space Force, is another confirmed customer of SpaceX’s Starshield program.
Breadcrumbs about a potential partnership with various American regulatory bodies and the security apparatus at large had been dropped in the past.
SpaceX, in 2022, deployed 8 unknown national security satellites for the US government, which were speculated to be test satellites for Starshield.
An additional 2 satellites, namely v1.5’s, were launched on behalf of the Space Development Agency in April 2023.
Security experts and former US government officials also repeatedly praised SpaceX and Starlink for their involvement in Ukraine, helping the embattled country’s military to organize itself and effectively communicate on the frontlines.
Then, in June 2023, the US Pentagon said that it would be purchasing Starlink terminals, which it would send directly to Ukraine to aid the country’s defense efforts against Russia.
Weeks later, the famed biographer Walter Isaacson, who recently published his autobiography on Musk and an accompanying op-ed in the Washington Post, stated that “SpaceX licensed Starshield satellites and services to the U.S. military and other agencies, allowing the government to determine how they could and should be used in Ukraine and elsewhere.“
Ensuing comments basically confirmed that SpaceX is setting up a mini-constellation on behalf of the US government.
Unfortunately, due to the secretive nature of the project and customer base, we will probably only receive limited information on the matter going forward.
Starshield, even despite the limited information that’s available at this point, represents a multi-billion opportunity for SpaceX.
As partnerships solidify, the impact of Starshield on the global stage could be significant, further cementing SpaceX’s position as a leader in space technology and national security applications.