SpaceX has announced the creation of a new subsidiary, Starshield, which will utilize enhanced versions of Starlink technology and larger earth-imaging satellites equipped with sensors to provide a range of data collection services for national security agencies such as the NSA and CIA. This includes the ability to capture photos, real-time video, and various forms of data. Starshield aims to provide similar services for classified government data as Starlink does for personal and commercial communication, including high-speed internet data links and ground links for stationary or mobile use in vehicles or on ships. Starshield satellites are designed to be compatible with user-supplied modules that utilize the Starshield interface, and feature more robust encryption for data and control links. The company plans to utilize larger SpaceX satellite launch vehicles to deploy new Starshield satellites into orbit.
Starshield will compete with commercial firms like Blacksky and Maxtar, which already hold significant government contracts for persistent imaging, including real-time video, of specific regions on Earth. The United States has utilized these specialized imaging services to provide superior satellite data on Russian forces to Ukraine.
SpaceX’s Starlink subsidiary has developed a second generation (gen2) of its current satellite ahead of schedule. These gen2 satellites are larger and five times heavier than the current model, requiring the development of a larger satellite launch vehicle, which is also on schedule. The gen2 satellites are described as nearly ten times more capable than the original gen1 Starlink satellites and are designed to work with and eventually replace them. The gen1 satellites are intended to last for approximately seven years before gradually losing altitude and burning up upon reentry into the atmosphere. The full capabilities of the gen2 satellites will not be known until they are in orbit, although gen1 satellites have already proven to be more effective than anticipated.
Starlink’s primary function is to provide cheaper, more powerful, and globally accessible internet and communication network services to paying customers, including military users not considered a threat to the company. Threat nations, including China, Russia, and smaller countries such as Iran, North Korea, and Cuba that oppose internet access they cannot control, are not eligible to use the Starlink network. China has reportedly estimated that Starlink can increase the speed and capacity of military communications by over 100 times.
Starlink is not the only multi-satellite internet service provider system, with similar initiatives in development in countries including Russia and China. However, Starlink has achieved a significant lead in terms of numbers and capabilities, being the first to enter service and quickly demonstrating its effectiveness, including its ability to adapt to the needs of military users. This was demonstrated in Ukraine, where Starlink was activated and thousands of user kits (consisting of a small satellite dish and special modem) were delivered within a week. Ukrainians have been impressed by the potential of Starlink and have quickly found new uses for it, including military applications. Despite Russian interference, including alleged assistance from China, Starlink has performed successfully under difficult conditions in Ukraine.