Orbital Surveillance

These Satellites Will Hunt Pirates, and Maybe Terrorists

SpaceX is set to launch three toaster oven-size vehicles this weekend that will scan the globe for telltale radio signals of dark ships.  

These Satellites Will Hunt Pirates, and Maybe Terrorists

SpaceX is set to launch three toaster oven-size vehicles this weekend that will scan the globe for telltale radio signals of dark ships.  

Spectators watch as a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launches from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on Nov. 15.

Photographer: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Photographer: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If all goes as planned with the scheduled SpaceX launch Sunday, a startup called HawkEye 360 will have a trio of satellites resembling toaster ovens circling the globe, scanning for pirate radio. 

The Washington-area company is one of 35 paying customers strapped to the top of the Falcon 9 rocket, a crowd of cosmic enterprises boldly pushing the private sector into parts of the universe that were once solely the province of sovereign space agencies. The passenger list includes a Honeywell satellite to relay messages from tankers at sea, a company called Audacy that is building a system to speed communication among satellites, and the Nevada Museum of Art, which is launching an orbiting sculpture meant to be visible from Earth. 

The HawkEye mission, meanwhile, is a bit more subtle—and lucrative. While space is full of satellites snapping pictures of the planet, the company said it will be the first commercial operation to capture radio frequency feeds down below. 

“I spend as much time pitching the paradigm—the idea—as I do pushing Hawkeye itself,” said founder Chris DeMay. “It’s not necessarily intuitive to those who don’t come from the government, because [radio frequency] is not inherently visual.”

HawkEye engineers prepare the company’s first three satellites for launch.
Source: HawkEye 360

DeMay used to help the U.S. government do this kind of thing during his tenure at the National Reconnaissance Office. A few years ago, he realized that the growing crop of small satellites—or cubesats, as they are called—could accomplish missions similar to what’s being done by larger, more expensive government hardware.

The company he formed in 2015 had a simple pitch to government agencies: “We convert a capital expense to an operation expense.” Raytheon Co., the giant defense contractor, was an early investor and customer. It has engineers working with Hawkeye’s 31-person team and, in turn, will sell some of the company’s findings to its own government customers.

Sunday’s launch (it’s been rescheduled twice) will be the 18th mission by Elon Musk’s rocket fleet this year, and the first time such a large vehicle was entirely dedicated to ride-sharing. SpaceX split the $62 million cost among dozens of small clients, rather than NASA or some other major satellite operator. (The launch had originally been scheduled for earlier this month but was delayed.)

Once aloft, Hawkeye’s three satellites will be able to triangulate and pinpoint any given radio signal. Eventually, the company hopes to have 10 separate, three-satellite flocks zooming around the globe. With that much hardware, it will be able to scan any part of the world in less than 30 minutes. “It’s going to move pretty darn quickly once we have live data from space,” DeMay said.

So why is this important? “If you kind of look at the art of the possible … you can understand how that could be very beneficial for customers like Homeland Security or Coast Guard,” said Jane Chappell, Raytheon’s vice president of global intelligence solutions. In any type of conflict, or for law enforcement, the ability to zero in on people you might not otherwise see becomes a valuable—if perhaps Orwellian—product. 

Chief Executive Officer John Serafini said about half of HawkEye’s demand will come from defense and intelligence clients, with the rest coming from a mixed bag—ranging from rescue groups searching for emergency beacons at sea to telecommunications companies eager to map bandwidth use. 

A scan of vessels that turned off their GPS transponders over a one-month period. 
Source: HawkEye 360

The first order of business, however, will be catching pirates. Smugglers and other wrongdoers of the high seas regularly turn off  their GPS transponders to avoid tracking. Instead, they use satellite phones and CB radios to coordinate with other ships or confederates on land, all of which will whisper to the Hawkeye toasters soaring overhead.

“They told me what they wanted to do, and I thought ‘Is that possible?’” recalled Robert Tremlett, a maritime analyst and former merchant marine. Tremlett spent much of his career escorting minesweepers and military ships near Iraq and Iran. Often, on those missions, a very expensive and sophisticated plane flew overhead to keep an eye out for dark vessels laying mines. HawkEye will be able to perform a similar service at a fraction of the cost. 

“I see this as part of a solution to a massive problem,” Tremlett said.