SpaceX has announced a new subsidiary called Starshield to use enhanced versions of Starlink technology plus larger earth-imaging satellites with sensors to provide whatever sensing capabilities a national security customer wants. This includes photos, real-time video and all manner of data which satellite sensors can collect. Potential users include the NSA, CIA and equivalent agencies of American allies. While Starlink has achieved market dominance in space-based communications for personal and commercial users, that largely consists of high-speed Internet datalinks and inexpensive ground links that can be stationary or moving in a vehicle or ship. Starshield plans to do that same with classified data government agencies collect. Starshield satellites are designed to accept many types of capabilities provided by user supplied modules that are designed to use the Starshield interface. Starshield data and control links use much more robust encryption. Starshield will use larger SpaceX SLVs (satellite launch vehicles) to put new Starshield satellites in orbit.
Starshield is organized to take business away from commercial firms like Blacksky and Maxtar that already have billions of dollars in government contracts to provide persistent imaging, including real-time video, of specific areas on earth. The United States provides these specialized imaging services to Ukraine and that provides superior satellite data on Russian forces than what the Russians can provide to their own troops.
Starlink, a subsidiary of American firm SpaceX, has developed a generation 2 (or gen2) of its current Starlink satellite. This was done ahead of schedule. Because gen2 is larger and five times heavier than the current satellite, it requires a larger SLV (satellite launch vehicle). That is also being developed and is on schedule, not ahead of schedule.
The gen2 satellites are described as nearly ten times more capable than the gen1 (original) Starlink satellites. Gen2 are designed to work with gen1 satellites and gradually replace them. Gen1 birds are designed to last for about seven years. At that point the satellite gradually loses altitude until it burns up reentering the atmosphere. The true capabilities of gen2 won’t be known until some of them are in orbit. Gen1 satellites proved more effective than expected but the list of suggested improvements indicated that a larger gen2 sat would be the way to go. Eventually this will mean fewer Starlink satellites in orbit but there will still be thousands of them.
The main function of Starlink is to provide cheaper, more powerful and globally available access to the Internet or any other communications network that can pay for the use of the Starlink network. That includes military users that are friendly to Starlink and not considered a threat. The threat nations include China, Russia and several smaller countries like Iran, North Korea and Cuba that are hostile to Internet access they cannot control. China estimates that Starlink is able to increase the speed and throughput of military communications over a hundred times what it is now.
Starlink is not the only multiple-satellite ISP (Internet Service Provider) system. There are similar efforts underway in several countries, including Russia and China. These efforts have fallen far behind Starlink in terms of numbers and capabilities. Starlink is unique in that it was the first to enter service and quickly proved it could do what it was designed to do. That included quickly adapting to the needs of military users. This was demonstrated in Ukraine where Starlink was activated over Ukraine and the first of thousands of free user kits (a small satellite dish and a special modem) delivered in less than a week.
Ukrainians were impressed by the potential for Starlink and rapidly came up with new uses, some of them military. This gave Starlink a realistic test under very adverse conditions. So far this has been a success even though Russia, apparently with some help from China, is seeking ways to shut down or disrupt Starlink.
Another advantage of Starlink was the rapidity of upgrades or modifications to deal with problems, including Russian efforts to jam or disrupt performance in Ukraine. Not only were the Russians unable to disable Starlink, but found its encrypted signals far superior to communications Russian troops had to use in Ukraine. Worse for the Russians was the Ukrainian ability to rapidly integrate Starlink with Ukrainian communications and fire control systems.
Before Gen2 satellites were ready, SpaceX pointed out that it could put additional Starlink satellites into orbit faster and more cheaply than Russia or anyone else could destroy them. This capability was part of the Starlink design that not only allowed satellite and user software to be quickly updated, but new Starlink satellites often had new features added to improve performance and that included more resistance to hacking and jamming. Complaints that Starlink satellites would become so numerous that they would be a hazard for other satellites are unproven and even less likely once the gen2 satellites are operating. Starlink operates in LEO (low earth orbit) between 300 and 600 kilometers from earth, where there is already a lot of space junk too small to quickly fall back into the atmosphere and burn up. Any plans to destroy a lot of Starlink satellites would make the situation worse without shutting down Starlink services. If left alone the gen1 and gen2 Starlink satellites are designed to burn themselves up in the atmosphere when no longer operational.
The original gen1 Starlink system was designed to expand to over 40,000 satellites if demand by paying customers was large enough to justify and pay for it. Starlink gen2 is designed to provide so much more customer bandwidth (data transmission) that far fewer Starlink satellites will be needed. That could be up to 90 percent less than gen1. Gen2 is designed to operate more efficiently over countries that outlaw Starlink as an ISP. Nearly half the Internet users on the planet live in countries that heavily censor Internet use. Starlink makes it much more difficult to censor Internet users. Originally designed to provide affordable high-speed Internet use to those in remote areas, Starlink discovered it had gained a lot of new customer interest because of the experience in Ukraine.
China sees Starlink as a serious threat to its current government Internet censorship and control over the population, as well as the political reliability of its military. That’s no speculation because it’s already happening, often live on TV, in Ukraine. China has not yet come up with a workable plan to disrupt or destroy Starlink, and considers Starlink a major obstacle to China eventually becoming the most powerful military force on the planet. That was supposed to happen before 2050. With Starlink it may take longer.
Starshield also aims to provide users with a dominant position in space-based sensing. Starshield is meant to be cheaper and more responsive than any existing competitor in providing a wider array of earth sensing capabilities. SpaceX has not revealed the schedule for lifting Starshield satellites into orbit, and some may already be there testing the services Starshield will provide. Starshield activities will be less public than Starlink, which is how intelligence agencies like it.