MDA owns and operates Radarsat-2, which provides imagery and data to government and commercial customers around the world. Radarsat-2, launched in 2007, continues to operate well beyond its seven-year design life. Credit: MDA

WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) awarded contracts to three companies to provide commercial radar satellite data, each of which will rely on foreign-owned satellites because no U.S. firm operates spacecraft collecting the imagery NGA seeks.

EADS North America of Arlington, Va., Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., and MDA Geospatial Services of Canada were each awarded indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts worth as much as $85 million over five years to supply the NGA with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data, according to a Dec. 29 NGA press release.

EADS North America will fill NGA imagery orders using data from the TerraSAR-X satellite that is on orbit and the TanDEM-X satellite that will launch in the coming months, both of which are operated by Astrium Services. Lockheed Martin Space Systems is teamed with e-Geos, a joint Italian Space Agency-Telespazio venture, to sell SAR data from the Cosmo-Skymed radar constellation that was financed by the Italian government. MDA Geospatial Services is a part of MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, which operates the Radarsat-1 and Radarsat-2 radar satellites.

With their ability to collect imagery in all weather conditions, day or night, SAR satellites offer important surveillance capabilities sought by military and intelligence organizations. Where radar data really sets itself apart from optical imagery is in change detection, experts say. Able to cover wide swaths of land or water from relatively low orbits, radar satellites serve as a kind of tripwire to cue higher-resolution systems.

The United States has for many years developed and operated its own highly sophisticated, classified radar satellites. But the nation lacks a domestic, second-tier source of commercial SAR data. In the optical imagery arena, by contrast, two U.S. companies — DigitalGlobe and GeoEye — operate satellites that complement more-capable government-owned spacecraft in supporting military and intelligence community users.

The NGA has requirements that include X-band, C-band and other commercially available bands of radar satellite data. This broad set of requirements dictated that the agency contract with several providers, as they cannot be satisfied by any single radar satellite constellation currently on orbit.