WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency must be poised to take advantage of a burgeoning Earth imaging satellite industry but also recognize how the surge in available data could aid the decision-making of the country’s enemies, the agency’s director, Robert Cardillo, said Jan. 21.

The industry’s rapid growth also means the NGA has to rethink how and when it buys satellite imagery, Cardillo said.

Speaking at a leadership dinner hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, Cardillo said the large number of small satellites expected to launch in the near future will create several questions for the agency.

“The skies — really space — will darken with hundreds of smallsats to be launched by Skybox, Planet Labs, BlackSky and others,” Cardillo said. “The challenges of taking advantage of that data are daunting. We cannot afford — nor need — to store it all, so will we have to go to an ‘imagery as a service’ model and buy only what we need when we need it? This will be less about the images and more about the derived information or analytics.”

The NGA’s responsibilities include setting requirements for national security imaging satellites, processing and distributing the data they collect, and procuring and distributing commercial satellite imagery for military and intelligence customers.

WorldView-3. Credit: Ball Aerospace
DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 has 0.31-meter-resolution imaging capability. Credit: Ball Aerospace
DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 has 0.31-meter-resolution imaging capability. Credit: Ball Aerospace

Currently the NGA’s anchor commercial imagery provider is DigitalGlobe, which operates five imaging satellites, the most capable of which is capable of resolving ground objects as small as 0.31 meters in diameter. The newcomers do not offer quite the same imagery quality, focusing instead on frequent revisit times via larger constellations and novel capabilities such as full-motion video.

These companies include those specifically cited by Cardillo: Skybox Imaging of Mountain View, California, which has two satellites on orbit and 13 more under construction and is being acquired by technology giant Google; Planet Labs, which has launched scores of imaging microsatellites to date; and BlackSky Global of Bellevue, Washington, which is completing demonstration satellites.

The NGA must understand the impact of these new constellations, not only on its own operations but also those of America’s adversaries, Cardillo said.“What questions can we answer with daily coverage of the planet?” Cardillo said. “What choices will our adversaries make with daily coverage of the planet? How will we maintain decision advantage in such a playing field?”

The geospatial intelligence community, like much of the military space community writ large, has been studying the use of small satellites as a way to increase the resilience of space-based capabilities.

In 2014, the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the industry, set up a small-satellite working group headed by Robert Zitz, chief systems architect at Leidos, and J.B. Young of Lockheed Martin Space Systems. The group, composed of experts from industry, government and academia, is considering the implications of using small satellites.

Zitz said under Cardillo’s leadership the NGA has become more open to the possibilities created by the small-satellite revolution. “It’s an evolution of NGA’s thinking,” he said of Cardillo’s remarks.

Cardillo’s challenge will be to ensure that the NGA can integrate the data now becoming available. The NGA’s work flow is currently optimized for highly capable intelligence and military satellites, he said.


Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.