WASHINGTON — The National Reconnaissance Office announced May 25 it awarded BlackSky, Maxar Technologies and Planet Labs 10-year contracts to provide satellite imagery for U.S. intelligence, defense and federal civil agencies.

The NRO called these awards the agency’s “largest-ever commercial imagery contracting effort.”

Maxar’s deal is worth more than $3.2 billion over the decade. BlackSky’s contract has options worth up to $1 billion. Planet Labs has not yet disclosed the value of its contract. 

“These contracts mark a historic expansion of the NRO’s acquisition of commercial imagery to meet increasing customer demands with greater capacity,” said the agency.

The contracts have a five-year base period of performance with options to extend up to 10 years. “NRO policy prohibits public statements of contract values. However, we can say the requirements have grown since EnhancedView and the contract scope and value have also grown,” a spokesperson said.

EnhancedView was a single-vendor agreement signed with Maxar in 2010 worth about $300 million a year for access to the company’s high-resolution imagery satellites and image archive. 

The EnhancedView arrangement is now being replaced with the Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL) contract shared by three vendors.

Maxar said its EOCL contract is worth up to $3.24 billion over the decade, with a firm five-year base commitment worth $1.5 billion and options estimated at $1.74 billion.

Under EOCL, “Maxar will continue to provide high-resolution commercial satellite imagery services to the NRO for use across the U.S. defense and intelligence community,” the company said.

The new contract gives the NRO access to the company’s current WorldView and GeoEye four-satellite constellation and to six new Legion satellites that have not yet been launched.

Maxar said the EOCL contract is “flexible and allows for growth to consider additional capacity from the Legion satellites when they are operational.” There is a $40 million option in year five of Maxar’s EOCL contract, bringing the potential value for year five to $340 million. 

BlackSky said the starting value of its EOCL agreement is $85.5 million and the total contract options are worth $1 billion over the 10-year period. 

NRO market research

The three companies selected for the EOCL procurement were expected to win. The NRO for several years had signaled its intent to expand the pool of imagery providers and in November issued the final EOCL request for bids after extensive market research, including study contracts awarded in 2019 to BlackSky, Maxar and Planet. The study contracts gave the NRO access to the companies’ business plans, finances and projected capacity of their satellite constellations.

“Commercial imagery is a valuable tool for information sharing and decision making,” said Pete Muend, director of NRO’s commercial systems program office. “EOCL allows us to meet a larger number of customer requirements more quickly than ever before and dedicate national systems to the most challenging and sensitive missions.”

Under the EOCL, the NRO will purchase a variety of imagery products, including foundation data and traditional imagery, as well as shortwave infrared, nighttime, and non-Earth imaging, and direct downlink to U.S. military remote ground terminals. Under this contract the NRO also can purchase “point collection” services where the government can task a commercial satellite to collect images over a particular spot. Non-Earth imaging of objects in space is a new capability that the NRO is buying that takes advantage of commercial satellites’ space situational awareness sensors. 

“Maxar has been a trusted U.S. government partner for more than two decades, and we’re proud to continue to serve that mission under EOCL,” said Maxar’s president and CEO Dan Jablonsky. 

 Planet Labs said its contract will give the NRO access to Planet’s high and medium resolution satellite imagery. Once in orbit and operational, users will also have access to Planet’s next generation, rapid revisit Pelican fleet. The contract also makes available Planet’s archive of over 2,000 images of every point on Earth dating back to 2009.

“We have long held the conviction that unclassified commercial satellite imagery not only equips the government with differentiated and innovative intelligence capabilities, but also increases transparency and accountability that advances global security, as well as trust between government and citizens,” said Planet’s co-founder and chief strategy officer Robbie Schingler.

Planet, which became a publicly traded company in December after closing a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, operates more than 200 imaging satellites. BlackSky also went public in September via a SPAC merger.

Brian O’Toole, CEO of BlackSky, told SpaceNews that the NRO’s contract is a strong endorsement of the company’s “dynamic monitoring, high frequency imagery services. It goes beyond what was done in the past with just foundational imagery.” The company operates 14 imaging satellites.

O’Toole said $72 million of the initial $85.5 million award is for services to be provided in the first two years of the contract. “So it’s a substantial expansion from where we were and a great start for a long term program that has a pretty big upside of up to a billion dollars.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...