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SpaceX Working on Hundreds of Swarming Spy Satellites for U.S. Intelligence Agency

SpaceX is working with the National Reconnaissance Office to build a classified system of swarming spy satellites, according to a report published by Reuters. And while the $1.8 billion contract was reportedly signed in 2021, news of the program’s ties to NRO just leaked on Saturday—a great reminder that it’s entirely possible for some tech companies to do highly classified work for years without the public learning about it.

The new satellite spy network is being built under SpaceX’s Starshield unit, which also manages Starlink satellite internet. The program is described by Reuters as consisting of, “hundreds of satellites bearing Earth-imaging capabilities that can operate as a swarm in low orbits.”

The five sources of information on the new program aren’t named in the new Reuters article, though one anonymous source is quoted as saying that “no one can hide” from the new satellite system.

From Reuters:

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.

[…]

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.

The Wall Street Journal first reported on the existence of a new satellite program being developed by SpaceX in February, but Reuters was the first to provide new information about the customer for what sounds like an incredibly powerful new spy system.

SpaceX and its founder Elon Musk have received criticism over the past two years as the billionaire has expressed skepticism that the U.S. should be involved in helping Ukraine during its fight against Russia’s invasion. The war started in Feb. 2022 and has killed tens of thousands on both sides, but Musk has become vocally opposed against the U.S. continuing to help its ally with intelligence and weapons. That would appear to be a big problem for the U.S. military establishment, since Ukraine is so dependent on Starlink satellite internet for command and control in the battlefield.

Musk infamously denied Ukraine use of Starlink to mount a counterattack of Russian forces in Crimea, a story told by his biographer Walter Isaacson, that was awkwardly walked back at Musk’s insistence after the book was published. But whatever actually happened in Crimea, there appears to be nervousness within the Pentagon about how reliant the U.S. military has become on Musk. And the leak of this latest contract between SpaceX and NRO proves the public probably doesn’t know the half of it.

As Reuters explained in the new report on Saturday:

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.

NRO was formed in 1960 on the heels of some major failures by the U.S. Air Force to get a military satellite program up and running. The shoot down and capture of U-2 pilot Gary Powers by the Soviet Union in May 1960 was a highly embarrassing international incident for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, which made it obvious the U.S. needed to get some proper mechanical eyes in the sky that couldn’t be shot down by adversaries.

The establishment of NRO in 1960 was an attempt to make the nation’s spy satellites an independent agency that could service U.S. military customers and U.S. intelligence agencies without causing turf wars. Giving an agency like CIA, for example, sole control of spy satellites could lead to unnecessary internal competition with other agencies. At least that’s the way Eisenhower’s science advisors thought about it at the time.

While a system of swarming satellites deployed by U.S. intelligence may sound futuristic, it’s important to remember U.S. imaging capabilities are already incredibly advanced and frankly make the 1998 surveillance thriller Enemy of the State look like a documentary. As just one example, the existence of ARGUS-IS, a 1.8 gigapixel camera developed by Darpa and BAE Systems, was revealed in a January 2013 episode of the PBS documentary “Rise of the Drones.”

The ARGUS-IS could provide images of an entire U.S. city, while allowing users to zoom in on any part and see enough detail to capture someone waving their arms. And it’s a pretty safe bet that the realities of U.S. spying capabilities in 2013 were much more advanced than what the public was allowed to see on PBS. The mind boggles to think what kind of resolution America’s eyes in the sky can get a decade later, to say nothing of how SpaceX’s swarming satellites might change the game in low Earth orbit.

The new report from Reuters says roughly a dozen prototypes for this new swarming system have been launched on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets alongside other satellites presumably with civilian purposes. But that kind of thing is far from new. As Gizmodo reported back in 2017, NRO was intimately involved in the design of NASA’s Space Shuttle, even if we still don’t know many details about the payloads NRO was hitching a ride to get into space. Same as it ever was, it seems.

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