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SpaceX to launch a swarm of US reconnaissance satellites next month

Space surveillance: SpaceX has never had a particularly friendly relationship with traditional defense contractors and manufacturers. However, the company is allegedly ready to send a fleet of secret US spy satellites into low-earth orbit.

Unnamed sources told Reuters that SpaceX is working with aerospace and defense contractor Northrop Grumman to develop a highly advanced network of spy satellites. The devices are almost ready to launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. The US government will likely use them to acquire high-resolution imagery of Earth’s surface.

The constellation of “hundreds” of spy satellites is part of a $1.8 billion contract between SpaceX and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the US defense agency that operates US reconnaissance satellites. Northrop Grumman, one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers and military tech providers, is contributing specific surveillance solutions like a series of sensors for a subset of the spy satellites.

One of the sources said that it’s in the “government’s interest” to avoid investing too much in a single company “run by one person,” an explanation providing an almost perfect definition of how SpaceX operates. Northrop Grumman will install its tech in at least 50 of the satellites. Other contractors are working on additional components, with SpaceX coordinating the efforts.

SpaceX is not unfamiliar with satellite swarms. It put thousands of satellites up for the Starlink internet service. The NRO is interested in exploiting the company’s tried ability to launch “megaconstellations” through their existing manufacturing facilities and the reusable Falcon 9 carrier. The new satellites are a “proliferated” network of swarms of individual surveillance devices less vulnerable to a large-scale (albeit still theoretical) attack by enemy entities.

The new satellites have exceptionally high-quality image sensors, with a resolution that exceeds the capabilities of some of the best spy satellites currently employed by the US. The military could theoretically use them as an alternative to drones and reconnaissance aircraft for surveillance tasks without the risk of violating foreign airspace.

The insiders said the first elements of the new spy network will launch next month from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The NRO’s principal deputy director, Troy Meink, confirmed the launch, stating it will be just the first of six identical operations slated for 2024 alone.

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