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26 May, 2020 23:12

Elon Musk’s SpaceX inks deal with US military to test out sky-crowding Starlink satellites for Army communications

Elon Musk’s SpaceX inks deal with US military to test out sky-crowding Starlink satellites for Army communications

SpaceX has agreed to let the US Army test out its Starlink satellite broadband network – made up of thousands of individual satellites in low-earth orbit – with the presumed aim of integrating it into existing military systems.

The military has signed a deal with the billionaire’s spaceflight company to test out the Starlink network over the next three years, evaluating its suitability for their data-transfer needs, an inside source told SpaceNews on Tuesday. Signed last week, the agreement, known as a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), is typically used by the military to test-drive private-sector technologies before buying them.

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At issue will be how Starlink performs in connection with the military’s own communications systems, which are somewhat lacking in flexibility and compatibility between hardware and software. They’re also not particularly mobile, relying on large dishes mounted on trailers that can’t handle the amount of data they’re currently having to put through. Army deputy program executive officer for command, control, communications tactical Joseph Welch has compared the Army’s woefully inadequate network capacity to a “soda straw.”

However, the Army will require a whole new system of ground terminals in order to use the Starlink system, which won’t be cheap. The CRADA will evaluate the cost of that overhaul, as well as the security of data as it is transferred from Starlink satellites to ground stations.

SpaceX already has hundreds of Starlink satellites orbiting the planet. While the broadband network eventually hopes to blanket the earth in high-speed internet, it is nowhere near complete, aiming to send up as many as 42,000 satellites in total within the decade. Musk hopes to launch 1,400 satellites this year alone at a rate of 60 every two weeks and plans to begin service for some US and Canadian customers later in the year.

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The sky-clogging devices have irritated stargazers and professional astronomers, who find it increasingly difficult to see into space with so many scenery-chewing satellites reflecting light. Space agencies have even considered billing companies like SpaceX for every satellite launched in the hope of cutting back on the proliferation of “space junk.” Were the military to begin using the satellites, however, SpaceX might be permitted greater latitude to pollute the night sky – after all, the US would never put a price on “national security,” no matter how frivolous the invocation of that excuse.

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