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SpaceX’s plan for global broadband satellite coverage calls for using sets of satellites orbiting at different altitudes. (PatentYogi via YouTube)

SpaceX has won a $28.7 million fixed-price contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory for experiments in data connectivity involving ground sites, aircraft and space assets — a project that could give a boost to the company’s Starlink broadband satellite service.

The contract was awarded on Wednesday, with work due to be completed by mid-2021.

It’s part of a program called Defense Experimentation Using Commercial Space Internet, or DEUCSI, which aims to provide the Air Force with the ability to communicate via multiple satellite internet services, using common hardware elements.

That strategy would make it possible for the Air Force to switch data service providers easily — for example, if new providers decide to enter the market, or if existing providers decide to leave it.

There are also tactical reasons for switchability. “An Air Force pilot using the space internet may wish to change vendors in flight to access a more favorable spectrum or geometry,” the project’s managers said in one of their calls for proposals.

The award makes clear that the U.S. military is interested in taking advantage of the global broadband access that Starlink and other satellite constellations in low Earth orbit could provide. In the past, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and other executives have talked more about the civilian market — that is, the idea that satellite constellations could benefit billions of people around the world who don’t currently have affordable, reliable broadband access.

SpaceX’s involvement would start with connectivity demonstrations involving aircraft and Air Force ground sites. Phase 2 would add two other types of experiments: commercial space-to-space data relay service and mobile connectivity directly from a space-based network to aircraft.

Such experiments mesh well with SpaceX’s Starlink development effort, which calls for putting as many as 12,000 satellites in low Earth orbit. The first satellites could be launched next year, and SpaceX has said its initial data network could be operational in the 2020-2021 time frame.

SpaceX’s facilities in Redmond, Wash., have played a lead role in preparing for Starlink, and that operation recently went through a reorganization to accelerate progress. However, the Air Force’s contract notice specifies that the work will be performed in Hawthorne, Calif., where SpaceX has its headquarters.

The Air Force said it was setting aside $19.1 million from its current fiscal 2019 budget for research, development, test and evaluation. The Air Force Research Laboratory, based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, is the contracting authority.

SpaceX isn’t the only company that figures in the Pentagon’s plans to take advantage of technologies developed for commercial satellite constellations. Last month, Telesat Canada said it won a $2.8 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to study the use of commercially built satellites in an experimental low-Earth-orbit constellation known as Blackjack.

Space News reported that DARPA awarded similar contracts to Airbus Defense and Space and to Colorado-based Blue Canyon Technologies — valued at $2.9 million and $1.5 million, respectively. The three awards are just the start of what’s expected to be a $117.5 million program, with a 20-satellite prototype network to be deployed by 2021.

Telesat is developing a low-Earth-orbit constellation for global broadband services, with the target of going operational with about 120 satellites in 2021. Airbus Defense and Space, meanwhile, is a satellite manufacturing partner in the international OneWeb consortium, which aims to start launching satellites next year and provide broadband access by as early as 2020.

Hat tip to Ars Technica’s Eric Berger and r/SpaceX on Reddit.

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