Updated March 20th, 2024 at 19:13 IST

Is US intelligence using SpaceX satellites to spy on Russia?

Reports recently revealed that SpaceX is in the process of making a network of multiple spy satellites under a confidential agreement with a US agencies.

Reported by: Anirudh Trivedi
Representative | Image:Unsplash
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Eyes in skies: In a startling revelation, Russian authorities have pinpointed a modus operandi of intelligence agencies in the United States, purportedly using commercial satellite operators such as SpaceX, to fulfil military space objectives, as per wire agency Reuters.

The Russian authorities are said to have become aware of, what it calls the agency trap from the US. Moscow further escalated the warning stating that this makes the SpaceX satellite a ‘legitimate’ target. 

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Earlier this month, Reuters revealed that SpaceX is in the process of making a network of multiple spy satellites under a confidential agreement with a US intelligence agency. 

A Chinese microblogging website account affiliated with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) also criticised the SpaceX program, alleging it revealed the United States "shamelessness and double standards" amid Washington's accusations against Chinese tech firms for endangering US security. 

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Legitimacy regarding targeting commercial satellite operators for military objectives is determined by a blend of international law, customary practices, and diplomatic agreements.  The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, ratified by both the United States and Russia, provides guidelines for space activities but lacks specific regulations concerning satellite usage.

What are SpaceX satellites and can they spy on Russia? 

SpaceX's Starlink project is designed to provide global satellite internet coverage. They orbit in low Earth orbit, forming a constellation to deliver high-speed internet access to underserved areas. 

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SpaceX Starlink | Image credit: Unsplash

Their speciality lies in their large numbers, advanced design, and interconnected network, which enable fast internet connectivity even in remote regions. Using phased array antennas and laser communication links Starlink enables efficient data transmission and reception. 

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Even though Starlink’s satellites, which are specifically designed for internet coverage, do not require detailed imaging or surveillance of Earth's surface, however, a Reuters report claims that SpaceX will be building hundreds of satellites specifically for surveillance. If these claims turn into reality, the large number and global reach of these satellites can enable SpaceX to capture real-time imagery of various locations, including those within Russia. 

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Representative | Image credit: Unsplash

Additionally, Starlink's low latency and high bandwidth communication capabilities could facilitate the transmission of intelligence gathered from these observations, providing valuable insights to relevant authorities.

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History of space race

The United States and Russia (formerly the Soviet Union) have had tensions and disagreements regarding various aspects of space activities, including satellite use.

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First moon landing by Apollo 11 | Image credit: NASA

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During the Cold War, there were standoffs and competition between the two superpowers in the space race, with each aiming to achieve milestones such as the first satellite launch, the first human in space, and the first manned moon landing.

Recently there have been concerns about the militarisation of space and the potential for conflicts to extend into space domains, particularly as nations develop capabilities such as anti-satellite weapons and space-based surveillance systems. 

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In the 22nd meeting of the 27th session of the United Nations in 2022, Konstantin Vorontsov, Deputy Head of the Delegation of the Russian Federation claimed that the country’s space activities were carried out in compliance with international law but Western countries, headed by the United States, were using outer space for military purposes.

Vorontsov said, “We urge Western countries to stop positioning that realm as an area of conflict by not deploying outer space weapons or using outer space objects to strike targets on Earth.” 

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However, Bruce I Turner, the United States Representative to the Conference on Disarmament, has declined the allegations saying, “The United States had announced its commitment to not conduct direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests and had submitted a draft resolution on destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing to complement multilateral efforts and increase transparency in outer space.” 

No plan to militarise space

A nuclear explosion in space carries the potential to incapacitate hundreds, if not thousands, of satellites and poses a threat to disrupt communication, space surveillance, and military command and control infrastructures of both friendly and enemy satellites. 

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Michael R Turner | Image credit: AP

In March 2024, Michael R Turner, who leads the US House Intelligence Committee, stated that a new advancement in space technology by Russia is becoming a significant threat to national security.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin | Image credit: AP

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However, while addressing the country's security council, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia has no plans for the militarisation of space. Putin said, “We have previously discussed the allegations put forth by certain Western figures regarding our purported plans to deploy nuclear weapons in outer space. I am making allegations because, as I have said before and as we all know, we have no such plans.” 

However, Putin made it clear that Russia will continually monitor the issue of outer space and ‘address any threats that may emerge’. 

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Published March 20th, 2024 at 19:13 IST