SpaceX, the American aerospace manufacturer and space transport services company founded by Elon Musk, has announced its entry into the Earth observation market. The company’s offering “includes a one-stop solution” for the defense industry, including Earth observation, secure communications and hosted payloads, which will be built using Starlink buses.
The DoD (NRO/NGA) recently awarded billions of dollars to Blacksky, Planet and Maxar for high-resolution optical imagery for 10 years, and is currently procuring SAR and RF data. However, SpaceX is not thought to be on any of these shortlists. It is unclear what advantage SpaceX will have over existing companies in the market, but it is suggested that the company’s low prices may be a factor.
SAR will likely be too complicated and could require custom mission design relative to other payloads. If SpaceX wants to use their Starlink bus they will likely need to use very expensive transmit and receive modules which would kill their strategic low cost bus advantage. We do not see SpaceX building a highly custom SAR design, rather, focus on low cost compatible missions.
International defense uptake and sovereignty in space, particularly in relation to Earth observation, has become a trend in recent years, with several countries investing in their own assets or procuring data. It remains to be seen whether SpaceX will be able to provide a convincing model for these countries. It is worth noting that SpaceX has not yet entered the commercial Earth observation market, and is currently focused on building up its Starlink business.