WASHINGTON — The National Reconnaissance Office on Nov. 3 released a request for bids from U.S. commercial providers of satellite imagery. 

The agency is seeking domestic suppliers of satellite imagery under a new program called Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL). Bids are due Dec. 3 and contracts will be awarded in early 2022.

The NRO is a U.S. intelligence agency that builds and operates the nation’s spy satellites, and also is the primary acquirer of commercial imagery for the U.S. government.

Contracts awarded under the EOCL will replace the current single-vendor agreement signed with Maxar Technologies, a deal that dates back to 2010. The NRO pays Maxar about $300 million a year for access to the company’s high-resolution imagery satellites and image archive. Maxar’s contract has been extended until August 2022.

Pete Muend, director of the NRO’s Commercial Systems Program, said on a conference call with reporters that the NRO collects on average about 50,000 commercial satellite images per week. He said he could not provide a funding estimate for the EOCL program but said the U.S. government’s requirements for satellite imagery are increasing and future contracts will reflect that growing demand.  

The final request for proposals (RFP) is the result of more than two years of market research, he said, including study contracts awarded in 2019 to Maxar, BlackSky and Planet. These contracts gave the NRO access to the companies’ business plans, finances and projected capacity of their satellite constellations.

The selected EOCL contractors will be required to sign “end user license agreements” so imagery can be shared across government agencies without additional licensing fees. 

The EOCL RFP is open to companies that are U.S.-owned, operated, and controlled. “This decision is based on the national space policy of the U.S. and the desire to foster greater stability and investment in the U.S. market,” the agency said.

“Global competition in commercial remote sensing is fierce, and while a growing number of U.S. companies are at the forefront, they are not alone,” said Muend. “We want to ensure that our U.S. industrial base is and remains competitive.”

Maxar ‘confident’ about NRO contract

Just hours after the release of the EOCL solicitation, Maxar CEO Daniel Jablonsky told analysts during a third-quarter earnings call that he expects the NRO to award contracts in the first quarter of 2022. 

Jablonsky said he is “pretty confident in what we’re seeing for funding levels for EOCL … They continue to see expanded use of commercial to meet the nation’s needs.” 

“I spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill and I think there’s a lot of strong support for the EOCL program, what it provides and the fact that it’s a good deal for the U.S. taxpayers,” he said. 

Jablonsky said Maxar has more advanced imagery capabilities than other competitors, “but we continue to be very aware of the environment around us, including new companies and what’s going on. We’re not standing still.”

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...