SpaceX, Northrop Grumman reportedly working on US spy sat program

LEO rising in US military: Close encounters of the recon kind

SpaceX is understood to be working with aerospace and defense biz Northrop Grumman on a spy satellite program that provides the US military with improved intelligence imagery.

Reports surfaced last month that the Musk-owned space launch company was building a network of spy satellites as part of a classified contract with an unnamed US intelligence agency.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is said to have awarded a $1.8 billion contract to SpaceX for the classified project in 2021.

Now, Reuters claims the company is working alongside defense contractor Northrop Grumman as part of a program intended to help US government agencies better track military and intelligence targets from low Earth orbit.

The project is already capturing high resolution imagery of the Earth’s surface, according to the newswire, quoting unidentified people familiar with the program.

We asked SpaceX and Northrop Grumman for comment, and will update if we get any answer.

It is no secret that SpaceX has been working with the US government on various things. Back in 2022, the space launch operator added a new subsidiary called Starshield to develop an additional orbital fleet designed for government use.

This is built with the same basic technology as its Starlink constellation that provides consumer broadband services from low Earth orbit, but with extra capabilities focused on three areas; Earth observation, communications, and hosted payloads.

It is understood that Starshield is the subsidiary working with Northrop Grumman, which is said to be involved because Washington wants to avoid putting too much control of a highly sensitive intelligence program in the hands of one contractor. Especially a contractor whose owner is known to be unpredictable and - at times - petulant, we suspect.

Northrop Grumman is reportedly providing the sensor payloads for the satellites, with imaging features designed to offer superior clarity when compared to existing intelligence gathering systems. It is unclear if other contractors are also involved in the project.

Earlier this month, the US Space Force (USSF) unveiled a strategy focused on making the most of the operational capability and capacity offered by America’s commercial space sector in order to stay ahead of opponents such as Russia and China.

However, this situation could be risky for SpaceX, which could see its space hardware come to be regarded as a legitimate target by adversaries such as Russia and China.

Back in 2022, Russia accused the US of "provocative use of civilian satellites" over the deployment of Starlink to aid Ukraine, and warned the United Nations that commercial space systems were at risk of becoming military objects for retaliation.

China has also hit back at the latest news. The official newspaper of China’s military has accused the US of “militarising space,” and said that the Starshield satellite constellation “posed huge challenges to information and space asset security of other countries,” according to South China Morning Post.

The Starshield project would allow the US government and military to “quickly spot potential targets almost anywhere on the globe,” it complained.

Russia and China are both believed to have anti-satellite weapon systems. Washington accused Moscow of developing a "troubling" new anti-satellite weapon earlier this year, while USSF chief General Chance Salzman highlighted the danger posed by China’s anti-satellite (ASAT) missile tech last year. ®

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