NRO to tap commercial industry for spaceborne radar data
The director of the U.S. National
Reconnaissance Office (NRO) Christopher Scolese announced 7 October
2021 the agency will start buying space radar imagery from commercial
“Our focus today is on
innovation and commercial capabilities,” Scolese said in a
keynote speech at the 2021 GEOINT Symposium (5-8 October 2021, St.
Figure 1: National Reconnaissance
Office Director Chris Scolese speaks Oct. 7 at the 2021 GEOINT
Symposium (image credit: USGIF)
“I’m proud to announce the NRO’s new Broad Agency Announcement,” said Scolese.
This BAA (Broad Agency Announcement)
as a “flexible approach to an acquisition process that will allow
us to evaluate, leverage, and even integrate new and emerging
phenomenologies like radar, hyperspectral, and radio-frequency sensing
as they become available.”
The first procurement under this BAA
will be for commercial synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data. Scolese
said this BAA will be released in about a month.
The NRO buys traditional electro-optical imagery
from commercial providers and will award new contracts early next year,
said Scolese. He noted that the next step will be to work with
providers of other types of commercial remote sensing phenomenologies.
The BAA for
commercial radar will be open to the entire industry, including
foreign-owned U.S. companies. “If you have technologies that fit
the bill, come talk to us,” he said.
SAR imagery is in high demand in the
energy and agriculture sectors and increasingly is being used by
defense and intelligence agencies. Radar sees through clouds and other
atmospheric obstacles that interfere with optical satellites.
The NRO in December 2019
awarded SAR imagery provider Capella Space a contract to experiment
with the use of the company’s data and figure out the utility of
the data for national security. The agency in November 2020 issued a
request for information to get a better understanding of the state of
the U.S. commercial radar imagery industry.
The NRO acquires satellite data for the U.S. intelligence community, the military and homeland security agencies.
“We’ve seen an explosion of innovation on the commercial side,” said Scolese.
“This BAA framework will allow
the NRO to rapidly explore, assess, and leverage innovative industry
capabilities to meet new intelligence challenges and inform operational
Pete Muend, director of the NRO
Commercial Systems Program Office, told reporters at the GEOINT
Symposium that the BAA will help the agency “to onboard new
entrants, across all of the phenomenologies.”
The NRO wants to work with companies
that have operational constellations but also emerging ones that are
now building their systems. Muend said the BAA gives the NRO options to
“provide some direct support, some direct funding for providers
to do some additional things for us that may not follow the purely
commercial side, to satisfy some of the unique needs that we
Muend said the BAA, called
“Framework for Strategic Commercial Enhancements,” will be
issued for different focus areas multiple times per year.
NRO (National Reconnaissance
Office) is a member of the United States Intelligence Community and an
agency of the United States Department of Defense (DOD) which designs,
builds, launches, and operates the reconnaissance satellites of the
U.S. federal government, and provides satellite intelligence to several
government agencies, particularly signals intelligence (SIGINT) to the
NSA, imagery intelligence (IMINT) to the NGA (National
Geospatial-Intelligence Agency), and measurement and signature
intelligence (MASINT) to the DIA.
NRO is considered, along with
the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA),
Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and National Geospatial-Intelligence
Agency (NGA), to be one of the "big five" U.S. intelligence agencies.
The NRO is headquartered in Chantilly, Virginia, 2 miles (3.2 km) south
of the Washington Dulles International Airport.
NRO develops, builds,
launches, and operates space reconnaissance systems and conducts
intelligence-related activities for U.S. national security. The NRO
also coordinates collection and analysis of information from airplane
and satellite reconnaissance by the military services and the Central
The NRO was established on
August 25, 1960, after management problems and insufficient progress
with the USAF satellite reconnaissance program. The formation ws based
on a recommendation to President Dwight D. Eisenhower during a special
National Security Council meeting, and the agency was to coordinate the
USAF and CIA's (and later the navy and NSA's) reconnaissance
activities. The NRO's first photo reconnaissance satellite program was
the Corona program. The Corona system used (sometimes multiple) film
capsules dropped by satellites, which were recovered mid-air by
military craft. The first photos of the Corona program were
declassified in February 1995.
During the Cold War, the U.S.
relied on photo reconnaissance satellites to track adversaries' weapons
development, especially in the Soviet Union and China. From the early
1960s to mid-1980s, photography from space was often the only way to
get critical data about nuclear threats. The NRO also managed follow-on
efforts called ARGON, LANYARD, GAMBIT and HEXAGON. All these used
photographic film and re-entry vehicles to return the exposed film to
earth. Later satellites, including those used today, transmit data
electronically from space. The NRO continues to manage reconnaissance
programs, contributing greatly to national security. The last HEXAGON
flight was in 1986.
Reconnaissance satellites have
played a critical role in maintaining U.S. national security since
1960. They dispelled U.S. fears of a "missile gap," proving the U.S.
had not fallen behind the USSR in weapons progress in the 1950s and
1960s. Accurate information from satellites allowed defense officials
to act on facts, not speculation. — Over the years, satellites
captured images of every new and existing Soviet strategic missile
silo. This helped the U.S. confidently verify arms control agreements
and track conflicts. The CIA described the value of such knowledge as
In the 21st century, the NRO
is the U.S. intelligence agency responsible for developing, launching
and operating the nation’s spy satellites. It is also the primary
acquirer of commercial imagery for the federal government. 3)
In June 2021, NRO issued a
draft solicitation for the EOCL (Electro-Optical Commercial Layer)
program procurement. A final request for proposals is being reviewed by
the Defense Department and the U.S. intelligence community, and should
be released before the end of the year, an NRO spokesman told
Under this new imagery
procurement, the NRO plans to buy products from multiple vendors and
move beyond the current single-supplier arrangement that the National
Geospatial Intelligence Agency signed more than a decade ago with
DigitalGlobe, which is now Maxar Technologies. The NGA in 2017 turned
over responsibilities for commercial imagery procurement to the NRO,
while the NGA remains the primary buyer of commercial geospatial data
The NRO is expected to select
at least three U.S. suppliers and structure the program with onramps
for new providers. The agency also will require vendors to sign
“end user license agreements” so imagery can be shared
across government agencies without additional licensing fees.
“We reconfigured our
next-generation commercial contracts to include pricing that
incentivizes innovation and rewards the development of new
capabilities,” NRO Director Christopher Scolese said Aug. 24 at
the the 36th Space Symposium in Colorado.
The EOCL program is focused
primarily on acquiring imagery for military users but will also obtain
imagery to help domestic agencies monitor natural disasters, crop
production and climate change. “Today’s commercial partners
now provide imagery as a service, which allows us to focus on the
difficult tasks,” said Scolese.
EOCL to replace EnhancedView
Maxar Technologies is the
NRO’s sole supplier of commercial high-resolution satellite
imagery under the EnhancedView contract, a deal that dates back to 2010
when NGA selected two imagery providers — DigitalGlobe and
GeoEye. By 2012, government spending cuts forced NGA to slash its
imagery budget by half. EnhancedView subsequently was reduced from more
than $7 billion to about $3.5 billion, which led to the merger of the
two companies under DigitalGlobe.
The NRO pays Maxar $300
million a year for access to the former Digital Globe’s
WorldView-1, WorldView-2, WorldView-3 and GeoEye-1 satellites, as well
as the company’s image archive. EnhancedView was a 10-year deal
set to expire in 2020 but when the NRO took over the management of the
contract, it added three one-year options worth about $300 million
each. The agency so far has exercised two one-year options, extending
the contract through August 2022.
A loud and clear sign that the
NRO wanted to shift to a multi-vendor agreement was the 2019 award of
three study contracts. One was to incumbent Maxar and the other two to
smallsat constellation operators Planet and BlackSky. The contracts
gave the NRO access to the companies’ business plans and finances
as well as the projected capacity of their satellite constellations.
Maxar to face Competition
Planet and BlackSky bring other products to the market that the NRO
also wants, according to Chris Quilty, an industry analyst. Both are
rising commercial players in the geospatial intelligence industry that
have expanded their reach into the government market in recent years.
Planet and BlackSky satellites
capture lower-resolution imagery than Maxar satellites, but the firms
provide intelligence based on repeated observations. The revisit rate,
or time elapsed between observations of the same point on Earth, makes
it possible to detect patterns of change. Planet has a competitive edge
in this area by virtue of having more satellites and more revisits.
Planet and BlackSky are poised
to receive a large influx of capital through mergers with
special-purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs. BlackSky in September
began trading as a public company on the New York Stock Exchange.
Planet’s SPAC deal is expected to be approved by regulators
before the end of the year.
The NRO, in writing the EOCL
solicitation, “clearly carved its requirements into three pieces
aimed specifically at Maxar, Planet and BlackSky,” observed
The draft RFP (Request For
Proposal) says NRO is seeking imagery products in three areas. One is
“foundation imagery” used for mapping, charting and other
applications where Maxar’s high-resolution images are preferable,
The second area is global
“taskable” area imagery primarily for military intelligence
requirements. Taskable imagery services allow the government to direct
a satellite to capture the precise images it needs.
The third is medium-resolution
imagery to track objects, activities and change detection. Quilty
observed that tracking and monitoring requirements are suited to the
capabilities of Planet and BlackSky. With the Legion constellation,
Maxar will be more competitive in taskable imagery with a more rapid
The NRO in the draft
solicitation “didn’t put any value associated with each of
the three pieces,” Quilty said. And it’s still unknown
whether that structure will survive in the final RFP.
Another looming question is
the duration of the EOCL contracts. Quilty doubts the NRO will want to
sign 10-year deals like EnhancedView.
“Given the dynamic
nature of this industry and the number of satellites expected to be
launched in the next three to five years, I’m guessing that the
NRO will want to reserve some flexibility in their contracting
capability by not overextending the length of this contract,” he
Robert Cardillo, chairman of
the board and chief strategist of Planet Federal, said the NRO’s
new imagery procurement is an opportunity for the government to invest
in new capabilities.
Table 1: Some background of the NRO and its start of buying commercial imagery 2) 3)
NRO development and events with commercial imagery
• January 20, 2022: The
National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) announced Jan. 20 it has signed
agreements with commercial radar imagery providers Airbus U.S., Capella
Space, Iceye U.S., PredaSAR and Umbra. 4)
- These agreements are study
contracts that give the NRO access to the data collected by these
companies’ synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites, and are
intended to help the agency better understand the quality of
commercially available imagery.
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,” NRO Director Chris Scolese said in a statement.
- Scolese in October announced the
agency launched a new effort — known as Strategic Commercial
Enhancements Broad Agency Announcement — to form partnerships
with commercial operators of remote-sensing satellites. The NRO for
years has purchased traditional optical satellite imagery from commercial suppliers but is new to the commercial SAR market.
- Pete Muend, director of the
NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office, said during a call with
reporters that the BAA attracted a large number of bidders but he could
not discuss the source selection process or the value of the contracts
awarded to the five winners.
- SAR imagery used to be collected only by government satellites but the commercial market picked up steam
in recent years. A number of new space companies have deployed
constellations of small satellites that capture images of places on
Earth multiple times a day, through clouds and bad weather conditions.
- SAR customers include the agriculture, energy, finance, infrastructure and other sectors. The U.S. military uses SAR to detect targets and monitor activities on the ground.
Figure 2: Iceye radar satellite image of the Gulf of Oman shows oil slicks around a tanker (image credit: Iceye)
NRO to work with U.S. based foreign firms
said the five agreements are for a minimum of six months but can extend
to 30 months. He noted that two of the contracts — to Airbus and
Iceye — were awarded to U.S. subsidiaries of foreign-owned
companies, a first for the NRO that typically only works with domestic
contractors. “This demonstrates we want to ensure our customers
have access to the best capabilities across the global remote sensing
market,” he said.
- Under the study contracts, the NRO
will assess the companies’ SAR data and cybersecurity
capabilities. The agency is not yet committing to any long-term
purchasing agreements, said Muend. “Our role is to help
understand the market.”
- Capella Space
operates a constellation of seven satellites and was the first U.S.
commercial SAR operator. In 2019 the company signed an agreement with
the NRO to study the integration of SAR imagery into the agency’s national ground architecture.
- Muend explained that this previous
study contract was “principally focused on our architecture
interface and the actions required to integrate commercial radar
products into it” while the new agreements are to assess
providers’ commercial radar capabilities.
- Airbus operates a constellation of three SAR satellites. Iceye U.S.,
a subsidiary of the Finnish SAR satellite operator, has the largest
fleet of commercial SAR satellites, with 16 launched to date. PredaSAR, a startup owned by Terran Orbital, is projecting its first launch for the fourth quarter of 2022. Umbra so far has deployed two SAR microsatellites.
1) Sandra Erwin, ”NRO to tap commercial industry for space-based radar data,” SpaceNews, 7 October 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/nro-to-tap-commercial-industry-for-space-based-radar-data/
2) ”National Reconnaissance Office,” Wikipedia, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Reconnaissance_Office
Sandra Erwin, ”NRO’s strategy to buy satellite imagery
shaped by thriving commercial market,” SpaceNews, 21 October
Erwin, ”National Reconnaissance Office signs agreements with five
commercial radar satellite operators,” SpaceNews, 20 January
2022, URL: https://spacenews.com/
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert
J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth
and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer
Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th
edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always
welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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