Earlier this week, SpaceX unvieled “Starshield,” a Starlink derivative for military use. Starshield can be used to “support national security efforts,” including spying on Earthbound targets and hosting government and military payloads.
SpaceX already beefed up Starlink’s ability to resist attacks by enemy governments in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, although it refused to block Russian propaganda websites. SpaceX’s Starlink helps provide critical communications for Ukraine’s defense forces.
Starshield will likely have improved security as well. SpaceX hasn’t revealed many details about what the satellites will look like. However, it says the communications capacity will include “additional high-assurance cryptographic capability to host classified payloads and process data securely.” It will also include laser communications between satellites that may be similar to the proposed lasers on the Starlink v2 satellites.
Although Starshield was criticized as a way for SpaceX to entrench itself as a defense contractor, it already launches military satellites, many of them classified payloads. It also launched unclassified payloads like GPS satellites and a laser communications experiment.
SpaceX may simply regard the U.S. military as just another customer, like NASA and civilian satellite owners like OneWeb. SpaceX plans to launch some OneWeb satellites today (December 8, 2022) despite some previous back-and-forth sniping between OneWeb and SpaceX. It also plans to launch a lunar lander and rover for Japan and the United Arab Emirates over the weekend.
Starshield wouldn’t be the first proposed “alternative” use for Starlink satellites. Researchers also found a way to use Starlink satellites as an alternative to the GPS constellation. The Air Force funded the research. Some SpaceX executives showed interest in the work and may have cited GPS-enabled technologies’ $146.4-billion-per-year market, but Musk passed on the opportunity, saying that “we can’t afford any distractions.” Despite Musk’s lack of support, the researchers found ways to reverse-engineer Starlink’s beacon signals.
Starshield may be a response to the Pentagon’s previous interest in Starlink’s improved security, which can now fend off military-style jamming attacks. The Air Force backed that up by awarding SpaceX a $1.9 million contract to provide Starlink access in Europe and Africa.
It’s good, but it’s expensive. Elon Musk previously complained about spending $20 million a month on providing Starlink-based communications to Ukraine, most of which probably goes toward its high-end cybersecurity defenses.
If Starshield becomes a reality, it will provide an alternative to using Starlink, which was meant for civilian use, for military purposes.