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SpaceX launches 1st satellites for new U.S. spy constellation

REUTERS/JOE SKIPPER / MAY 6
                                A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is launched, carrying 23 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
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REUTERS/JOE SKIPPER / MAY 6

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is launched, carrying 23 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

WASHINGTON >> SpaceX today launched an inaugural batch of operational spy satellites it built as part of a new U.S. intelligence network designed to significantly upgrade the country’s space-based surveillance powers, the first deployment of several more planned this year.

The spy network was revealed in a pair of Reuters reports earlier this year showing SpaceX is building hundreds of satellites for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, an intelligence agency, for a vast system in orbit capable of rapidly spotting ground targets almost anywhere in the world.

Northrop Grumman, a longtime space and defense contractor, is also involved in the project.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in Southern California at 4 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, carrying into space what the NRO said was the “first launch of the NRO’s proliferated systems featuring responsive collection and rapid data delivery.”

“Approximately half a dozen launches supporting NRO’s proliferated architecture are planned for 2024, with additional launches expected through 2028,” the agency said, without naming the number of satellites deployed.

Militaries and intelligence agencies around the world have increasingly relied on satellites in Earth’s orbit to aid operations on Earth, a trend accelerated in part by reduced costs of putting things in space and evolving threats to traditional collection methods on land or in the air.

The satellite network for the NRO also shows the extent to which the U.S. government has come to rely on Elon Musk’s SpaceX for some of its most sensitive missions. The company has dominated the U.S. rocket launch market and has become the world’s largest satellite operator with its Starlink network, a commercial system of thousands of broadband internet satellites.

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