BlackSky illustration of Earth monitoring satellites. Credit: BlackSky

WASHINGTON — Earth imaging and analytics company BlackSky won a $3.5 million contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory to supply satellite imagery and analysis in support of “global moving target engagement,” the Air Force said March 8.

This award comes on the heels of a research contract last year, and a $2 million award announced March 4 to supply the Air Force satellite imagery data and access to the BlackSky data analytics platform. Under the $2 million contract, the AFRL will use the data for studies and to help train artificial intelligence models focused on detecting and tracking moving objects and targets from space.

The $3.5 million contract is the first task under a contract worth up to $23 million over four years, an AFRL spokesperson said in a statement.

BlackSky was selected for a Space Technology Advanced Research (STAR) contract used by AFRL for rapid acquisitions in support of space technology research. 

 “The STAR contract will be leveraging BlackSky’s commercial data sources and AI/ML algorithm expertise in support of a hybrid architecture demonstration program assessing the military utility of commercial and allied ISR capabilities,” the spokesperson said. ISR is short for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

 The $3.5 million task order is specifically for what AFRL calls global moving target engagement, to “explore the utility of commercial data sources and their related algorithms to detect moving objects globally and at scale.”

BlackSky and its subcontractors, AFRL said, “will leverage data sources of various modalities in conjunction with machine learning algorithms in a data fusion approach to advance commercial moving object detection capabilities.”

Tracking targets from space a top priority

The use of satellites to track moving targets has emerged as a top priority for the U.S. Air Force as it transitions away from traditional airborne platforms to space-based systems. The Air Force wants to be able to do this type of intelligence gathering without risking piloted aircraft in hostile airspace or active war zones.

Another commercial Earth imaging company, Umbra, has also received contracts to evaluate the use of radar satellites to track moving targets.

The U.S. military for decades has relied on radar-equipped aircraft known as JSTARS — or Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System — to discriminate targets against the ground clutter. 

By tapping into commercial satellite imagery and analytics, the military is trying to understand the capabilities of satellites to monitor activities on the ground. The Air Force, meanwhile, is working with the Space Force and the National Reconnaissance Office to develop a classified constellation of satellites to monitor moving targets on the ground.

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...