The Air Force is using SpaceX’s fledgling satellite network to test encrypted internet services for a number of military planes, the space company’s president said, detailing results for the first customer of Elon Musk’s planned constellation of thousands of broadband-beaming satellites.
“We are delivering high bandwidth into the cockpit of Air Force planes,” SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said. “Right now we’re just testing the capability and figuring out how to make it work.”
SpaceX’s so-called Starlink constellation, a planned network of up to 30 000 satellites in low Earth orbit intended to beam broadband internet globally, is crucial to generating the cash to fund development of Musk’s heavy-lift Mars rocket dubbed Starship.
The Air Force programme, known as Global Lightning, started testing with SpaceX in early 2018 and used Starlink’s first two test satellites to beam to terminals fixed to a C-12 military transport plane in flight, demonstrating internet speeds of 610 megabits per-second, SpaceX Senior Vice President Tim Hughes said. That’s fast enough to download a movie in under a minute.
SpaceX launched in May the first batch of 60 operational satellites into low Earth orbit and plans to launch another 60 in November from an Air Force station in Florida.
Shotwell said the programme, part of a $28 million Pentagon contract awarded to SpaceX in late 2018, is on-going and expects to test Starlink with “a number” of additional military aircraft types. That contract also includes testing communications between satellites in orbit.
The US military is increasingly dependent on satellites to determine what it does on the ground, guiding munitions with space-based lasers and satellites as well as securing such assets from satellite-jamming technology from Russia and China.
The head of the new US Space Command, General John Raymond, told reporters in September that he visited SpaceX’s Starlink factory in Redmond, Washington, but did not go into details about the Pentagon’s plans.
Starlink is competing with Softbank-backed OneWeb, which aims to give millions of people in remote and rural areas high-speed internet beamed down from space and has already launched a batch of six satellites. Raymond said he also visited OneWeb’s new satellite production line in Cape Canaveral, Florida.