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SpaceX passes Arctic military tests for Pentagon contracts

SpaceX’s Starlink satellite service successfully completed nine months of US military tests in the Arctic, potentially clearing the way for owner Elon Musk to deepen his ties with the Pentagon in a region of growing strategic competition.

The previously undisclosed testing found that StarLink to be a “reliable and high-performance communications system in the Arctic, including on-the-move applications,” Brian Beal, principal engineer with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Integrated Capabilities Directorate, said in a statement to Bloomberg News.

The exercises, which ended in June, evaluated Starlink’s usefulness for the Pentagon’s needs, according to Beal. A SpaceX spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We tested in some very high winds and very cold temperatures,” Beal said. “That all went smoothly though. Once we got the terminals mounted securely to withstand high winds, they worked great with no issues.”

The testing suggests that Starlink has the potential to become a crucial asset in what’s becoming an increasingly important area of competition with Russia and China, which have both sought to expand their influence in the Arctic. But the region’s rough climate and remoteness limit communications through existing military satellites.

That’s where the portable Starlink terminals come in as a possible solution. The Air Force also continues to evaluate the London-based Eutelsat OneWeb, which has a few more months of Arctic testing to go, Beal said.

The potential Arctic contracts would add to a burgeoning space portfolio for SpaceX, even as Musk has become more embroiled in controversy over his management of X, endorsement of an antisemitic post and a subsequent ad boycott. Earlier Wednesday, people familiar with the matter said SpaceX has initiated discussions about selling insider shares at a price that values the closely held company at $175 billion or more.

The test results allow for potential Space Force contracts with SpaceX issued by its Commercial Satcom Office. Starlink and OneWeb series “are now available for procurement,” said Beal. “We have made the results of the Arctic experiments available to many parties within the Air Force,” he said.

Read more: Elon Musk’s SpaceX is now valued at $175 billion in the private market—that’s larger than any IPO valuation in history

“This is good news,” said Leonor Tomero, a vice president at JA Green, a government relations firm, and a former Pentagon deputy assistant secretary. “We need faster and additional communication layers to strengthen strategic deterrence.”

SpaceX already has 233 satellites in polar orbit, said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and astrophysicist at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. There are more than 5,000 Starlink satellites overall.

Current SpaceX Pentagon business includes ongoing competitive National Security Space Launch contracts. Its Falcon Heavy rocket also has been approved to launch the nation’s most sensitive intelligence satellites.

It’s also providing launch services and satellites for the US Space Development Agency and a competitive one-year Space Force “task order” valued at up to $70 million for commercial services. This year, SpaceX was also awarded a Pentagon contract of still undisclosed value to provide Starlink satellite communications to the Ukraine military.

In October, Army Major General Brian Eifler, commander of the new Alaska-based 11th Airborne Division, told a conference that Musk had visited his command “to explore customized technologies” that can withstand the cold. He also lauded Starlink’s potential.

Read more: Amazon will now pay Elon Musk’s SpaceX to get its Project Kuiper satellites into space—and compete against his Starlink service 

In October 2020, SpaceX hired former US Northern Command chief Terrence O’Shaughnessy, who earlier that year recommended Congress approve $130 million for “Polar Communications” experiments using “systems such as” Starlink or the OneWeb constellation.

In May 2020, while still at Northcom, O’Shaughnessy recused himself from SpaceX activities, citing employment discussions. He’s now vice president for the SpaceX’s Special Projects group.

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