SpaceX won a $ 28.7 million contract at a fixed price from the Air Force Research Laboratory to conduct data connectivity experiments including ground locations, aircraft and space assets – a project that could boost the Starlink broadband service.
The contract was awarded on Wednesday, with work completed by mid-2021.
It is part of a program called the Commercial Internet Defense Experiment (DEUCSI), which aims to provide the Air Force with the ability to communicate via satellite Internet services using common hardware elements.
Such a strategy would enable the Air Force to easily switch data service providers – for example, if new service providers decide to enter the market, or if existing service providers decide to leave it.
There are also tactical reasons for transformation. "An air force pilot using a satellite Internet may want to change vendors on a trip to a better spectrum or engineering," the project managers said in one of their calls for proposals.
This award shows that the US military is interested in taking advantage of the wide global reach that Starlink and other satellite groups can provide in LEO. In the past, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and other executives from the civil market – the idea that satellite groups could benefit billions of people around the world who currently do not have reliable, affordable broadband access.
SpaceX will begin to be involved in communications offerings involving aircraft and ground forces positions. Phase II will add two other types of testing: space-to-commercial space-to-space and mobile-to-space data transmission.
Such experiments resonate well with Starlink's space development efforts, which call for the development of up to 12,000 satellites in low Earth orbit. The first satellites can be launched next year, and SpaceX said that its initial network of data could operate within the 2020-2021 timeframe.
SpaceX's facilities in Redmond, Washington, played a leading role in Starlink's preparation, and the process has recently undergone a reorganization to accelerate progress. However, the air force contract notice states that the work will be carried out in Hawthorne, California, where SpaceX is headquartered.
The Air Force said it was allocating $ 19.1 million of its budget for fiscal year 2019 to R & D, testing and evaluation. The Air Force Research Laboratory, based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, is the contracting authority.
SpaceX is not the only company imagining the Pentagon's plans to take advantage of the technologies developed for commercial satellites. Last month, Telesat Canada announced that it had won a $ 2.8 million contract from the Advanced Defense Research Projects Agency to study the use of commercially built satellites in a low-Earth orbit experimental constellation known as Black Jack.
Space News reported that Darpa had awarded similar contracts to Airbus Defense and Space and to Colorado-based Blue Canyon Technologies for $ 2.9 million and $ 1.5 million, respectively. The three awards are just the beginning of what is expected to be a $ 117.5 million program, with the creation of a prototype network of 20 satellite channels by 2021.
Telesat is developing a low-Earth constellation for global broadband services with the goal of operating with about 120 satellites in 2021. At the same time, Airbus Defense and Space is the satellite manufacturing partner of OneWeb International, which aims to launch satellites Next year and provide broadband access by 2020.
Hat tip for Ars Technica's Eric Berger And R / SpaceX on Reddit.