The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has awarded five commercial radar contracts to Airbus‘ U.S. division; San Francisco-based Capella Space; Finland-based ICEYE’s U.S. division; Florida-based PredaSAR Corp.; and Santa Barbara-based Umbra Lab Inc.., the agency said on Jan. 20.
The awards come under NRO’s Strategic Commercial Enhancements Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) Framework, announced by NRO Director Chris Scolese last October.
“We know that users across the National System for Geospatial Intelligence are eager to explore commercial radar, and these contracts will allow us to rapidly validate capabilities and the benefits to the national mission,” Scolese said in a Jan. 20 statement.
NRO wants to take advantage of the “explosion of innovation on the commercial said,” Scolese said last October.
The NRO has said that leveraging commercial capabilities in commercial radar, hyperspectral imagery, radio frequency remote sensing, and electro-optical (EO) imagery will help the agency reserve its satellites “for the most stressing and sensitive missions.”
The NRO also wants commercial EO satellite imagery to help sustain and strengthen U.S. industry and increase the capacity and resilience of satellites used for national security purposes.
The BAA is to enable the NRO to buy a range of commercial imagery, including EO, radar, hyperspectral, radio frequency remote sensing, and light and detection ranging (LIDAR) data, and to help providers scale up their capabilities.
Scolese has said that the traditional NRO acquisition process takes five to 10 years and the agency has already demonstrated it can acquire capabilities in three years. The goal with the BAA is to shrink that further, he said.
Pete Muend, NRO’s Commercial Systems Program director, said last November that the NRO buys about 50,000 commercial images per week and will increase that buy (Defense Daily, Nov. 3, 2021).
“We were able to issue the request for proposal, receive and evaluate the responses, and award these contracts in just over three months,” Muend said in a Jan. 20 statement on the five commercial radar contracts under the BAA.
The NRO is to announce the next focus area under the BAA later this year.
Commercial contracts provide the NRO about 100 million square kilometers of commercial imagery per week, Scolese said last year.
On Dec. 19, 1976, the NRO launched its first EO satellite–KH-11 KENNEN–to provide near real-time imagery to decision makers, and former President Jimmy Carter declared the satellite operational on inauguration day on Jan. 20, 1977. Commercial EO satellites are now providing capabilities that the NRO, which became publicly known in 1992, is looking to take advantage of.
The first commercial EO satellite was Lockheed Martin‘s [LMT] and the then-Space Imaging’s IKONOS satellite, launched in September 1999. Space Imaging is now part of Maxar Technologies [MAXR].
Customers for commercial EO have included agricultural companies, insurance companies looking to estimate possible fire damage to homes near forests, cities looking to combat the effects of global warming by increasing the tax burden on companies having sites with impermeable surfaces, and environmental stakeholders wanting aid in color coding beaches by bacterial risk and the sharing of that data through the establishment of Water Markup Language (WaterML).
Commercial companies could bolster the NRO in broad area map making; responding to decision maker requests regarding geo-political events and natural disasters; and tracking of global events. In so doing, commercial companies may help maximize the capacity of the NRO’s monitoring and move global hot zones to lower risk ones.
The NRO’s customer base includes the intelligence community, more than 2,000 domestic agencies, policy makers, and the U.S. military, Muend has said.