Dave Gauthier, director of NGA’s Commercial and Business Operations Group, shared the results of the agency's first Olympic-themed evaluation of international Earth observation capabilities at the GEOINT 2021 Symposium. Credit: SpaceNews/Debra Werner

ST. LOUIS – The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency plans to conduct an annual assessment of commercial satellite imagery like the Olympic-themed evaluation the organization conducted earlier this year.

“Over the next four to five years, we expect to see 500 remote sensing satellites each year launching into space,” Dave Gauthier, director of NGA’s Commercial and Business Operations Group said Oct. 7 at the GEOINT 2021 Symposium here. “That’s going to be a massive change in the capacity and the types of capabilities we can get commercially.”

The Olympics inspired Gauthier’s staff to present the findings of their first commercial imagery assessment as gold, silver and bronze medals for nations with the top offerings in nine categories: panchromatic resolution, electro-optical persistence, shortwave infrared, synthetic-aperture radar (SAR), SAR persistence, mid-wave infrared, video, multispectral imaging and hyperspectral imaging.

While many in the intelligence community were well aware of the leading role foreign firms played in gathering commercial imagery, the results of the first annual evaluation produced some surprises.

“We expected Maxar’s Worldview-3 system to have the best resolution in the world and it does,” Gauthier said. “We expected the European countries to dominate SAR because they’ve done so for decades. And they do.”

The competition revealed, however, that Finland’s Iceye offered the world’s highest SAR revisit rate and U.S. company Capella Space offered the highest SAR resolution.

“The smallsat SAR community is shaking up the game,” Gauthier said.

Another surprise was “just how fast China proliferated their low Earth orbiting electro-optical constellations,” Gauthier said. “They’ve got great video systems. They’ve got high revisit rates.”

One more surprise was Argentina claiming the gold medal for multispectral imagery thanks to Satellogic.

A key takeaway from the competition was that “it’s incredibly important to have allies and partners with you to complement your strengths with their strengths,” Gauthier said.

The competition also showed that since everyone can obtain commercial imagery and data, the advantage will come from turning data into analytic insights, Gauthier said.

The Olympic medal results shocked some U.S. policymakers who thought U.S. companies led the world in acquiring Earth imagery, Gauthier said.

After seeing the standings, many policymakers asked NGA officials how they could help U.S. industry win the global Earth-observation competition. The Intelligence Community Commercial Space Council is addressing that question, Gauthier said.

NGA officials, meanwhile, are figuring out the most efficient way to obtain new commercial datasets and to turn them into analytic services. Their conclusions will be published in a unified document that lays out the U.S. government’s commercial geospatial intelligence strategy.

A primary element of the strategy will be the “need to unify our efforts to be more effective and efficient in approaching the commercial market,” Gauthier said.

Also highlighted will be the need to “increase the adoption of these capabilities into our intelligence production and use them as primary sources in producing intelligence for the warfighter,” Gauthier said.

“We won’t get there overnight,” Gauthier cautioned. “This is a strategic shift in mindset to say, ‘You don’t have to have national or classified source in order to produce some intelligence report. You can have commercial source and that can be a primary source for production,’” he added.

It also will take time for intelligence analysts to become accustomed to turning to commercial sources first, Gauthier said. Because commercial data is unclassified, reports produced with those data are easier to share and individual datasets may be easier to fuse with other datasets,” he added.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...