AURORA, Colo.—The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) this summer expects to seek proposals from commercial providers of satellite-based radio frequency (RF) sensing capabilities to help it better understand how to make use of this phenomenology for geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) in support of warfighters and decision makers, an agency official said on Monday.
Also, this summer the agency expects to award multiple contracts for next-generation satellite-based electro-optical (EO) imagery to commercial entities, building on established capabilities and contracts already in place, according to a presentation by Pete Muend, director of the NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office. Muend’s slide presentation showed the Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL) contracts are expected this summer but later he hedged with media during a roundtable, saying the award is in source selection and the process is ongoing.
Muend did say during a keynote speech at the annual GEOINT Symposium near Denver that both the Defense Department’s and intelligence community’s joint requirements processes have validated that “this is how much commercial imagery we need to buy in the future, at least on the electro-optical side.”
Currently, the NRO acquires commercial EO satellite imagery from three providers: BlackSky Technology [BKSY], Maxar Technologies
[MAXR], and Planet Labs [PL].
The upcoming EOCL contract will have “flexible contract mechanisms to onramp new providers and new capabilities as they become available,” Muend said.
Next up for NRO is a solicitation for commercial RF sensing that is part of the agency’s Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) framework put in place last year that began with contract awards to five companies for synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery.
The commercial RF solicitation, just like the ongoing SAR effort, will request data on modeling and simulation, existing on-orbit capabilities to verify the modeling and simulation and obtain data that shows a company’s solution can meet user needs and requirements, and to begin to more formally understand how this commercial capability “is going to play in that larger and next-generation SIGINT overhead architecture,” Muend said.
U.S. ownership will also be important, he said, highlighting it will create awareness of what’s available in the commercial marketplace and to ensure the U.S. industrial base can support the government now and in the future.
“We take that responsibility very seriously and that underpins a lot of what we do,” Muend said.
The BAA will also have a low barrier to entry to “cast a broad umbrella,” and U.S. and foreign-owned U.S. companies can respond, he said.
Eventually, just like the EO program, the long-term goal is to create a program of record for commercial RF sensing, Muend said.
NRO does have a contract in place with HawkEye 360, a commercial RF satellite provider that has a constellation of 12 spacecraft on orbit. Muend said that “we’ve been using that contract to great benefit” for the Ukraine crisis.
“And again, we’re pushing that data everywhere we can to make sure it’s used by everybody who can need it, working again with our partners and allies,” Muend said.
The data obtained from HawkEye is also being used to “think through what next-generation overhead SIGINT architecture” will be and how commercial RF fits with this, he said.
Also, like with the SAR contract, the RF awards under the BAA will allow NRO to rapidly begin acquiring RF sensor data to gain greater understanding of industry’s capabilities, Muend said.
While the SAR contracts were awarded to help NRO and its partners better understand commercial capabilities, gain confidence in the data, and to help inform future requirements, Russia’s build up of military forces and subsequent invasion of Ukraine in February led the agency to begin taking advantage of the commercial satellite radar imagery immediately.
Vice Adm. Robert Sharp, director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, said at a separate media roundtable on Monday that SAR provides the all-weather imaging capability that EO satellite sensors can’t, and this has been important in the Ukraine crisis given the “pretty cloudy” conditions.
The use of commercial SAR imagery has been a “smaller percentage” of the overall commercial sensing being acquired, Sharp said.
Muend, during his presentation to a GEOINT audience, said NRO has been able to quickly scale the SAR contract, specifically with Capella Space “to dramatically increase both the contract value and what we’re asking the provider to deliver as part of that.” He later told reporters that NRO is acquiring a “tremendous amount of imagery” from the commercial radar contractors.
So far, the only company that NRO has surged its purchases of SAR imagery from has been Capella Space, one of the five commercial awardees in January, Muend said. The contracts with the other SAR providers include the same crisis clause to surge purchases, he said.
“And when they all get to that stage, we are eagerly working with them to take advantage of those capabilities as well,” Muend said.
Companies have been forward leaning in providing imagery related to the Ukraine war when asked to, he said.
In addition to Capella Space, NRO also awarded radar contracts to Airbus Group’s U.S. division, the U.S. division of Finland’s ICEYE, Terran Orbital’s PredaSAR business unit, and Umbra Lab. Terran plans to launch its first SAR satellite this fall.
Frank Avila, deputy director of commercial and business operations for NGA’s Source Directorate, said at the roundtable with Sharp that the agency has been leveraging SAR data from Capella and ICEYE. Other vendors have satellites on orbit but they aren’t operational yet, he said.