SpaceX’s Starlink successes secure US military contract for custom satellites

SpaceX has won $149 million from the Space Development Agency (SDA) to leverage the successes of its Starlink constellation and build custom satellites for the US Department of Defense (DoD).

The development comes as no surprise after SpaceX spent more than six months publishing dozens of job openings for satellite design, development, test, and integration engineers with “top secret” security clearance. Thanks to that paper trail, it’s been apparent for quite some time that SpaceX planned to leverage its nascent satellite design and production capabilities to build custom spacecraft – and even entire constellations – for customers outside of the company.

Perhaps less than coincidentally, that capability closely mirrors a growing desire in the US military to return some level of agility, innovation, and affordability to the development and procurement of space systems (mainly satellites and the ground systems needed to control and communicate with them).

An artist’s conception of Starlink satellites in orbit. (Teslarati – SpaceX)

In classic US military fashion, SDA’s contracts appear to mirror DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) own Blackjack program. According to DARPA, the “Blackjack program aims to develop and demonstrate the critical elements for a global high-speed network in low Earth orbit (LEO) that provides the Department of Defense with highly connected, resilient, and persistent coverage.” At one point, SDA was seriously considering a role in DARPA’s Blackjack but had no plans to put money where its mouth was as recently as February 2020.

However, in a June 2020 interview, Blackjack project manager Paul Thomas deemed SDA a “very, very awesome partner” that will be directly involved in the launch of two early Blackjack testbed satellites later this year – to be followed by a “subconstellation” (~20 satellites) in 2022.

SDA’s October 5th, 2020 contract awarded SpaceX and L3Harris $149 million and $193 million, respectively, to build four satellites that will spot and track missile launches with wide-field-of-view (WFOV) “overhead persistent infrared” (OPIR) sensors. SDA expects the spacecraft to be ready for launch by September 2022. SpaceX will outsource its OPIR sensors to an unknown company, while L3Harris – already an expert of complex sensor design and production – will build and integrate its own. Bizarrely, DARPA awarded Raytheon $37 million in June 2020 to build and deliver two OPIR sensors for Blackjack satellites by April 2023 – seemingly unrelated to SDA’s October 2020 contract for eight OPIR satellites.

If things go as planned, the eight OPIR satellites SDA is paying $342 million to develop and launch will be the start of a 30-satellite “Tracking Layer” constellation. The Tracking Layer constellation will integrate with a separate “Transport Layer” of 20 laser-interlinked relay satellites to be built by Lockheed Martin ($187.5M) and York Space Systems ($94M) for ~$282 million and launched by September 2022.

Ultimately, it’s ambiguous just how closely SDA and DARPA are working on what currently appear to be separate, partially duplicative constellations of small satellites. Relative to DARPA’s Blackjack program, SDA is pursuing a far more ambitious schedule and has wagered far more resources (more than half a billion dollars) on its plans for a new missile-warning satellite constellation. If SpaceX, L3Harris, Lockheed Martin, and York Space Systems complete their respective work on schedule, SDA could effectively go from the drawing board to an unprecedentedly affordable constellation of 50 cutting-edge satellites in just 28 months – and all while spreading its risk between four unique companies.

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SpaceX’s Starlink successes secure US military contract for custom satellites
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