Microsoft will work with SpaceX on a network of satellites to detect nuclear launches

Business Insider US

A test launch of a North Korean ballistic missile.
KCNA (North Korea)
  • SpaceX has asked Microsoft's Azure cloud computing business to help the rocket company fulfil a $149 million (R2.5 billion) project for the American military.
  • For the contract, SpaceX will build four experimental satellites that detect missile launches as part of the US Department of Defense's Space Tracking Layer network.
  • The contract follows the partial rollout of SpaceX's ever-growing "megaconstellation" of Starlink internet satellites.
  • "Microsoft will be doing quite a bit of work as a subcontractor," Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, said in a video posted Tuesday.
  • Visit Business Insider SA's homepage for more stories.

SpaceX has tapped Azure, a massive cloud-computing service built by Microsoft, to help it develop and operate experimental satellites capable of detecting missile launches all over the world.

Microsoft revealed its partnership with SpaceX on Tuesday as part of its larger announcement of new modular data centres, or shipping-container-like platforms crammed with cloud-computing resources that can be deployed to remote areas of the world.

SpaceX plans to seamlessly link Microsoft's new devices through Starlink, the rocket company's growing fleet of internet-beaming satellites. (SpaceX plans to launch up to 42,000 spacecraft and link them with lasers to ostensibly provide a faster, space-based alternative to fiberoptic networks.)

"The collaboration includes connecting Starlink's high speed, low-latency satellite broadband with Azure's new Modular Datacenter (MDC)," Microsoft wrote in an announcement about the partnership. "The two companies also plan to further connect Starlink with Microsoft's global network — including Azure edge devices — integrating SpaceX's ground stations with Azure networking capabilities."

Scenarios for the use of MDCs "range from mobile command centers, humanitarian assistance, military mission needs, mineral exploration, and other use cases requiring high intensity, secure computing on Azure," Microsoft wrote in a blog post.

Leveraging Starlink and Azure to detect missile launches

Microsoft also announced that it's helping SpaceX as a subcontractor for the new Pentagon project, which aims to improve and expand the American Department of Defense's ability to detect missile launches.

For that $149 million (R2.5 billion) contract, which the US Space Development Agency recently awarded to SpaceX, the company will use its Starlink satellite factory in Redmond, Washington, to build four experimental satellites outfitted with an undisclosed company's infrared sensors, Reuters reported.

"We will be delivering to the government a number of satellites that host a capability to protect against ballistic weapons, and we were really proud to have Microsoft on our team there," Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's COO and president, said in a video published by Microsoft on Tuesday.

"Microsoft will be doing quite a bit of work as a subcontractor, which I think is kind of a funny twist to the relationship here," Shotwell added, referring to the Starlink support for Azure's new MDCs.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's president and chief operating officer, appears in a video published by Microsoft Azure on October 20, 2020.

SpaceX did not acknowledge Business Insider's request for information about the partnership. A representative for Microsoft acknowledged Business Insider's query but did not immediately provide more details about Azure's role in the effort.

However, Microsoft's blog post obliquely described some of the details: "SpaceX recently won a contract with the Space Development Agency to build new satellites — separate from the Starlink system — in support of a Space Tracking Layer defense system capable of detecting and tracking ballistic, cruise, and hypersonic missiles," Microsoft said in the post.

Such missiles emit a strong infrared signatures at launch due to their superheated rocket-engine exhaust, and are capable of carrying nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction. Early detection might provide up to an hour of warning and perhaps help with interception of the weapons.

SpaceX's new contract with the Pentagon is just one in a string of recent successes for the rocket company founded by Elon Musk in 2002.

The new contract follows a $28 million project, awarded in 2018, to outfit some US Air Force planes with Starlink internet connections. More recently, SpaceX won a 40% share of highly lucrative US military satellite launches through the US Space Force. (Though Musk was not pleased at receiving a minority share of the clandestine missions.)

SpaceX is also looking into retrofitting its self-landing rocket technologies, which the company has proven out with dozens of Falcon 9 launches, to fly more than 80 metric tons of military cargo to anywhere in the world in less than 60 minutes.

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