NGA-Commercial Partnership Could Hatch More Satellites

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The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is considering expanding the program under which it is helping to fund construction of a new generation of imaging satellites to be owned and operated by private industry.

Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper, the NGA director, said financial support for additional satellites beyond those already being built under the agency’s NextView program is a possibility provided the necessary funding materializes. “You can always do more with more money,” Clapper said Oct. 31 during a press conference here at the Geoint 2005 Symposium sponsored by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation.

“It’s certainly something we’ve been discussing with industry,” Clapper said. “…Commercial imagery has really proved its utility and worth.”

The NGA today buys imagery collected by existing commercial satellites using a contracting vehicle called ClearView, and is supporting construction and launch of two more-capable satellites under the NextView program. DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., Orbimage of Dulles, Va., and Space Imaging of Thornton, Colo., are the ClearView contractors, and the NGA has asked all three for bids that would extend that program — now worth some $500 million — by one year.

DigitalGlobe and Orbimage, which plans to acquire Space Imaging, are building new satellites under NextView contracts worth $500 million apiece.

During a briefing with reporters in Washington Oct. 19, Clapper said he viewed the commercial imaging industry as “a kind of life insurance, a safety net,” for the classified satellites operated by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The NRO’s own new generation of imaging satellites, the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), is well behind schedule, and this has raised concerns about a gap in U.S. national intelligence capabilities.

During the Oct. 19 briefing, Clapper characterized the NGA’s relationship with the commercial imagery providers as a “very strong partnership,” and added, “We have contingencies, I think, planned in the event we need to call on them to do more.”

At the Geoint press conference, Clapper said he doesn’t see a gap in national collection capabilities as likely barring a series of disasters such as launch failures, and emphasized that commercial satellites supplement and complement rather than substitute for the more capable NRO systems. During the conference, Clapper also said commercial satellites are “a fundamental part” of the FIA architecture.

Meanwhile, the NGA is extending the three-year ClearView imagery-purchasing program by one year, through 2006. Industry sources said bids for the ClearView year-four contracts were due Nov. 7.

NGA spokeswoman Sue Meisner said the extensions will be awarded prior to the expiration of the current contracts Jan. 31, 2006.

According to one industry source, DigitalGlobe, Orbimage and Space Imaging were each asked to make five separate offers under individual funding scenarios ranging from $1 million to $5 million per month in $1 million increments.

Space Imaging is bidding separately from Orbimage despite the companies’ plans to merge before the end of the year. “The Space Imaging-Orbimage merger is still undergoing U.S. regulatory review,” said Mark Brender, Space Imaging’s vice president of Washington operations. “Therefore Space Imaging is aggressively pursuing a ClearView award under the fourth year of the program.”