National Reconnaissance Office signs agreements with five commercial radar satellite operators

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These agreements are study contracts that give the NRO access to the data collected by companies’ synthetic aperture radar satellites

WASHINGTON — The National Reconnaissance Office announced Jan. 20 it has signed agreements with commercial radar imagery providers Airbus U.S., Capella Space, Iceye U.S., PredaSAR and Umbra.

These agreements are study contracts that give the NRO access to the data collected by these companies’ synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites, and are intended to help the agency better understand the quality of commercially available imagery. 

“We know that users across the national system for geospatial intelligence are eager to explore commercial radar, and these contracts will allow us to rapidly validate capabilities and the benefits to the national mission,” NRO Director Chris Scolese said in a statement. 

Scolese in October announced the agency launched a new effort — known as Strategic Commercial Enhancements Broad Agency Announcement — to form partnerships with commercial operators of remote-sensing satellites. The NRO for years has purchased traditional optical satellite imagery from commercial suppliers but is new to the commercial SAR market. 

Pete Muend, director of the NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office, said during a call with reporters that the BAA attracted a large number of bidders but he could not discuss the source selection process or the value of the contracts awarded to the five winners. 

SAR imagery used to be collected only by government satellites but the commercial market picked up steam in recent years. A number of new space companies have deployed constellations of small satellites that capture images of places on Earth multiple times a day, through clouds and bad weather conditions

SAR customers include the agriculture, energy, finance, infrastructure and other sectors. The U.S. military uses SAR to detect targets and monitor activities on the ground. 

NRO to work with U.S. based foreign firms

Muend said the five agreements are for a minimum of six months but can extend to 30 months. He noted that two of the contracts — to Airbus and Iceye — were awarded to U.S. subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies, a first for the NRO that typically only works with domestic contractors. “This demonstrates we want to ensure our customers have access to the best capabilities across the global remote sensing market,” he said. 

Under the study contracts, the NRO will assess the companies’ SAR data and cybersecurity capabilities. The agency is not yet committing to any long-term purchasing agreements, said Muend.  “Our role is to help understand the market.”

Capella Space operates a constellation of seven satellites and was the first U.S. commercial SAR operator. In 2019 the company signed an agreement with the NRO to study the integration of SAR imagery into the agency’s national ground architecture.

Muend explained that this previous study contract was “principally focused on our architecture interface and the actions required to integrate commercial radar products into it” while the new agreements are to assess providers’ commercial radar capabilities.

Airbus operates a constellation of three SAR satellites. Iceye U.S., a subsidiary of the Finnish SAR satellite operator, has the largest fleet of commercial SAR satellites, with 16 launched to date. PredaSAR, a startup owned by Terran Orbital, is projecting its first launch for the fourth quarter of 2022. Umbra so far has deployed two SAR microsatellites.