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Elon Musk’s SpaceX to build missile-tracking satellites for US military

Visitors watch a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying 60 Starlink satellites, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)
October 08, 2020

SpaceX, the American aerospace manufacturer owned by billionaire Elon Musk, was recently contracted by the United States Department of Defense to build satellites for the U.S. military.

The $149 million contract announced earlier this week by the U.S. Space Development Agency will require SpaceX to build four satellites capable of tracking intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), Reuters reported. The goal is to use the satellites’ wide fields of view to deliver continuous coverage globally through a project called “The Tracking Layer.”

Technology company L3 Harris Technologies Inc. was also awarded a $193.5 million contract for an additional four satellites.

“The capability…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.

SpaceX will design a satellite based on the Starlink mega constellation, a suggested group of 12,000 satellites capable of beaming internet to Earth from orbit. SpaceX has currently launched over 700 Starlink satellites.

Subcontractors will be required to produce SpaceX’s design, whereas L3 Harris’ design will be produced entirely in-house.

Both companies are required to deliver the satellites by September 2022, according to Space News.

“Each satellite will have a “wide field of view” overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) sensor capable of detecting and tracking advanced missile threats from low Earth orbit. The satellites will also be equipped with optical crosslinks to pass data to relay satellites,” Space News reported.

The contract winners were chosen based on “technical merit” and the company’s ability to deliver the satellites quickly.

SpaceX can build 120 Starlink satellites per month and their “flat-packed” design allows 60 to be launched at one time before separating in orbit. The satellites will eventually “talk” to each other through laser communication.

While SpaceX has never built military satellites, SpaceX has launched them for the United States military. In 2018, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., carrying a military navigation satellite.

The private company has been trying to get involved in military space launches for years, according to BBC News, adding that SpaceX would not try to re-land the rocket because it needed to use all of its fuel to transport the satellite into orbit.

In 2019, the Air Force gave SpaceX $28 million to use the Starlink satellite network to test encrypted internet services with military planes. Despite their relationship with SpaceX, the Air Force has not ordered any Starlink satellites of their own.