HawkEye 360 uses formation flying satellites to provide RF data reconaissance. Credit: HawkEye 360

WASHINGTON — The National Reconnaissance Office announced Dec. 11 it has awarded imagery study contracts to Capella Space and HawkEye 360.

The NRO calls these awards “data integration study contracts” because they examine how data from private companies could be incorporated into the government’s geospatial intelligence architecture. Capella Space provides commercial synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and Hawkeye 360 provides commercial radio frequency (RF) remote sensing.

“These contracts represent an important milestone in the agency’s strategy of embracing both existing and emerging commercial geospatial providers to create an integrated overhead architecture consisting of both national and commercial capabilities,” Pete Muend, director of the NRO Commercial Systems Program Office, said in a statement.

“The NRO is interested in better understanding the current capabilities of a variety of commercial vendors and assessing how those capabilities could potentially support the NRO’s national security mission,” he said. “With these two contracts, we are exploring the integration of commercial SAR and RF in ordering and imagery delivery into the NRO architecture.”

SAR is an active imaging system that operates at frequencies unaffected by weather. SAR can penetrate clouds, darkness and inclement weather. The data is used for intelligence analysis, battlefield reconnaissance, land and ocean monitoring, natural resource and agricultural monitoring and assessment.

Commercial RF data collection and processing seeks to provide analytics to identify and geolocate RF signals, including broadcast messages such as shipborne Automatic Identification Systems.

Muend said the integration study contracts will help the NRO figure out how it might use commercial providers’ capabilities in multiple phenomenologies.

The contracts to Capella Space and Hawkeye 360 follow four commercial imagery studies previously awarded by the NRO to BlackSky, HySpecIQ, Maxar Technologies, and Planet.

HawkEye 360 CEO John Serafini, said the NRO contract will help the company make RF data “readily accessible to serve the U.S. government.” Under the contract, HawkEye 360 will perform demonstrations, and analysis to show that commercial RF survey, ordering, cataloging, and data products can integrate into the NRO architecture.

HawkEye 360 launched its initial three satellites in December 2018 to identify and geolocate a broad range of RF signals. The company started commercial operations in April 2019.

Dan Brophy, vice president of government services at Capella, said the company’s 36-satellite constellation will be the first to deliver high-resolution SAR data on demand. The service provides high revisit rates and images in all weather and lighting conditions, Brophy said in a statement. “SAR also captures amplitude and phase history enabling the extraction of valuable information such as material properties, digital elevation mapping, and precise changes and movements, not available with optical imagery,” he said.

During a meeting with reporters Dec. 3, NRO director Christopher Scolese said the agency plans to increase the use of commercial imagery, and looks forward to working with new companies and new capabilities. “Commercial is going to play an important role in our future architecture,” said Scolese.

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...