Elon Musk’s SpaceX to partner with Northrop Grumman on US spy satellite system, reports say

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has reportedly partnered with US aerospace and defence company Northrop Grumman on a secret spy satellite project that is already capturing detailed images of the Earth.

According to Reuters, which was first to report on the classified project, it is meant to enhance the US government’s ability to track military and intelligence targets from low-Earth orbits.

The network’s imaging capabilities are reportedly intended to have superior resolution over most existing US government spying systems. Once it is fully deployed it will be equipped with an array of different sensors, including optical and radar technology, according to sources that spoke to Reuters.

The system will also feature relay satellites that can transmit the imagery and other data across the network.

Another hope for the Earth-orbiting project is that it will reduce the risks associated with reconnaissance imagery gathered by US aircraft and drones in other countries’ sovereign airspaces, especially in conflict zones.

The involvement of Northrop Grumman – one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers and military technology providers in the world – is reportedly to ensure that control over the highly-sensitive project is not given to one single contractor.

The National Reconnaissance Office awarded a $1.8bn contract to Musk’s SpaceX for the classified project, a planned network of hundreds of satellites, in 2021, according to Reuters (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

“It is in the government’s interest to not be totally invested in one company run by one person,” one of four people who spoke to Reuters said. It’s unclear whether other contractors are currently involved, or whether more will be brought in at a later date.

In March, the outlet reported that the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) awarded a $1.8bn contract to SpaceX for the classified project, a planned network of hundreds of satellites, in 2021.

Those familiar with the project said that SpaceX has launched roughly a dozen prototypes so far, and is already providing test imagery to the NRO. The collection of imagery has not been previously reported.

The B-21 Raider stealth bomber is unveiled at Northrop Grumman – one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers – in December 2022 (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Northrop Grumman is reportedly providing sensors for some of the SpaceX satellites and will test those satellites at its own facilities before they are launched, Reuters reported.

At least 50 of the SpaceX satellites are expected at Northrop Grumman facilities for procedures including testing and the installation of sensors in coming years, one source told the outlet.

In a statement, an NRO spokesperson said the agency “has always worked with a diverse group of partners to deliver the most capable, diverse, and resilient space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.”

The spokesperson did not comment further on specifics of the satellite network or identify any other companies that may be involved.

The Independent has approached SpaceX and Northrop Grumman for comment.

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