SpaceX is knee-deep in its Starlink initiative. It aims to bring a strong broadband internet connection to people around the world with a network of satellites. Now, Elon Musk’s spaceflight company is doing something else with its satellites. As of Tuesday, it is working with the Space Development Agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Defense, to build missile-tracking satellites.
SpaceX will design and build four satellites and will be compensated nicely to the tune of $149 million. It’s worth noting that the company has previously partnered with the military to fly national security payloads.
Although the contract is more groundbreaking for SpaceX, it isn’t the only company that will work on the new missile-tracking satellites. The Space Development Agency also tasked defense contractor L3 Harris with building four units. In total, it is commissioning eight satellites to make up the “tracking layer” of the new system.
The units will be designed to work in sync with satellites in the “transport layer” that are currently being built by Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems.
Each of the satellites features a new infrared sensor that boasts a wide field of view. Thanks to that, it is able to track almost any projectile—including hypersonic missiles. The satellites that SpaceX is designing will look familiar since they are based on its existing Starlink models. Musk’s company intends to outsource the production of the infrared sensor to an unnamed supplier.
Under the terms of the new contract, both SpaceX and L3 Harris will need to deliver the satellites by September 2022. That will be an important milestone to hit considering that the government could place additional orders for up to 30 more tracking satellites in the years ahead. If the system works as intended, it will bolster the United States’ defenses while also showcasing the power and innovation of private space firms.
If anyone is up to the task of designing and constructing four new satellites, it’s SpaceX. The company has been producing satellites at an incredible rate over the past few years.
There are currently several hundred Starlink satellites in orbit and it seems that SpaceX is adding to its constellation every month. That approach has drawn ire from astronomers who say that the satellites obstruct their observations of the galaxy. In response, SpaceX has taken measures to decrease the impact of its satellites, including outfitting them with visors to reduce glare.
Meanwhile, thanks to the reusability factor of its rockets, SpaceX is able to launch its satellites at a pace most other companies can only dream of. In August, the company broke a record by flying a Falcon 9 booster on its sixth mission. Unsurprisingly, it was transporting a payload of 58 Starlink satellites into orbit.
It will be very interesting to see how SpaceX manages its partnership with the government. The company could very well try to build on its Starlink success by going after more defense satellite contracts in the future.