Elon Musk’s SpaceX has won a $149 million contract to build missile-tracking satellites for the Pentagon, the US Space Development Agency (SDA) announced.
SpaceX will use its Starlink assembly plant in Redmond, Washington, to build four satellites fitted with a wide-angle infrared missile-tracking sensor supplied by a subcontractor.
The announcement also includes another $193 million going to technology company L3 Harris Technologies, which will build another four satellites – both firms are set to launch their devices by fall 2022.
The awards are part of the SDA’s first phase to procure satellites to detect and track missiles like intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which can travel long distances and are challenging to track and intercept.
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SpaceX, known for its reusable rockets and astronaut capsules, is ramping up satellite production for Starlink, a growing constellation of hundreds of internet-beaming satellites that Musk hopes will generate enough revenue to help fund SpaceX´s interplanetary goals.
This is also not the first government contract SpaceX has received.
In 2019, the firm was awarded $28 million from the Air Force to use the fledgling Starlink satellite network to test encrypted internet services with a number of military planes, though the Air Force has not ordered any Starlink satellites of its own.
The US Army has also showed interest in Musk’s satellite constellation, which has more than 700 devices.
The military group is exploring the notion of transforming the internet beaming satellites into a navigational network that it says is better and more secure than GPS, according to MIT Technology Review.
Engineers at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, who published a paper describing the technology and has been working with the Army, wrote: ‘New commercial broadband low-Earth-orbiting (LEO) satellites could provide a positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) service far more robust to interference than traditional Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS).’
The team also states that such a navigational system would be 10 times more precise than traditional GPS and less vulnerable to interference.
UT at Austin engineer Todd Humphreys told MIT that using Starlink satellites would improve GPS data down to centimeters, compared to the current technology’s signals which become weaker as they travel to Earth.
SpaceX’s devices, however, are designed to reach 100 megabits per second – GPS satellites only achieve fewer than 100 bits per second.
Coauthor Peter Iannucci told MIT Tech Review: ‘If you have a million times more opportunity to send information down from your satellite, the data can be much closer to the truth.’