James Clapper,

WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency believes more than 600 commercial imaging satellites could be on orbit by 2021 and hopes to leverage these assets to diversify its data sources.

The NGA collects, analyzes and distributes geospatial information, much of it derived from satellite imagery, for the military and intelligence community. The boom in the commercial satellite imagery business comes at a time when the U.S. government satellites that the NGA depends on today are viewed as increasingly vulnerable to threats from China and Russia.

These parallel phenomena were major themes during the Geoint 2015 Symposium here, an annual event organized by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation.

James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, said June 25 during the conference that the U.S. government faces two major challenges: fielding a threat-resistant satellite imaging architecture and finding ways to leverage the emerging commercial capabilities. “It’s a challenging task because of the rapidly evolving threat environment and equally dynamic commercial Geoint market,” he said.

The NGA has long been an anchor customer for relatively high-resolution commercial imagery provided by DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colorado. Most of this imagery is procured through a service level agreement, renewable on an annual basis, that guarantees the company around $300 million in NGA business each year.

But the agency is also studying how to incorporate imagery from the new crop of venture capital-funded companies like Skybox Imaging of Mountain View, California, and San Francisco-based Planet Labs that are launching tens and even hundreds of small, low-cost satellites to provide global coverage around the clock. NGA Director Robert Cardillo has repeatedly referred to the proliferation of commercial imaging satellites as a “darkening of the skies.”

During the conference, NGA officials offered few hints of what the future commercial imagery acquisition models might look like. But they did say they would tell industry what kind of specific data they were looking for until an industry standard develops, and that they are keenly interested in video imagery. A couple of companies including Skybox, now owned by technology giant Google, and UrtheCast, already are offering full-motion video collected from space.

With new satellite imagery ventures coming out of the woodwork on an almost monthly basis, the Defense Department and intelligence community need “to figure out how to harness the incredible power of such constellations if they come to pass,” Robert Work, U.S. deputy secretary of defense, said in a June 23 speech at the conference. “We’ll be aided by tapping into the innovations of the commercial sector. We have to be able to do that. And we need to get into real-time video, persistent access and multi- and hyper-spectral sensing.”

In-Q-Tel, the independent, not-for-profit organization established by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to identify and back young companies developing promising technologies, wrote in a briefing for the NGA that within the next couple of years, 240 commercial imaging satellites would be launched, according to Mark Choinere, director of the NGA’s advanced development office. Over the next five years, the number could reach 640, he said.

Planet Labs already has launched more than 70 satellites and lost another 26 in last year’s failure of an Antares rocket whose primary mission was to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Meanwhile, a company calling itself BlackSky and backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital investment vehicle recently divulged plans for a 60-satellite imaging constellation.

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.