he U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) will continue backing the commercial satellite imaging industry after its existing contracting arrangements expire, and also is keenly interested in exploiting non-U.S. sources of satellite data, according to U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Robert B. Murrett, the NGA’s director.
“There will be something after NextView,”
said, referring to the NGA contracting vehicle that helped underwrite a new generation of satellites being built by two U.S. companies, DigitalGlobe and GeoEye. He would not say whether the NextView follow on program would include an investment in more satellites or cover data purchases only, however.
“I don’t know if we know yet,” Murrett told reporters Aug. 1 during a roundtable discussion at the NGA’s Bethesda, Md., headquarters. He added that the structure of the new program will be determined at the senior levels of the defense and intelligence community.
Meanwhile, the launch of GeoEye’s GeoEye-1 satellite, one of two financed under the NextView program, has been delayed again. Mark Brender, a spokesman for Dulles, Va.-based GeoEye, said the satellite’s launch has been pushed from late 2007 until sometime around the end of the first quarter of 2008.
In an Aug. 2
filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, GeoEye cited technical issues that surfaced during testing as the reason for the delay, one of several encountered by the GeoEye-1 program. When GeoEye won its $500 million NextView contract in October 2004, the satellite’s launch was scheduled for early this year. The contract includes funds both for the satellite and for imagery.
Meanwhile, DigitalGlobe is preparing for a September launch of its WorldView-1 satellite, also financed in large part by a similar $500 million NextView contract awarded in September 2003. WorldView-1 originally was scheduled to launch in 2006.
The NGA is responsible for analyzing and distributing geospatial data collected by satellites and other platforms to U.S. military and intelligence organizations. While the agency relies heavily on the classified satellites operated by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, it also procures imagery from commercial vendors.
During the roundtable discussion, Murrett characterized the NGA’s relationship with DigitalGlobe and GeoEye as “absolutely vital,” but stressed that commercial satellites are but one part of the overall imagery collection architecture, which in addition to government satellites includes airborne platforms and other systems. By diversifying its data sources, the agency can protect itself against events such as launch failures, which hit the commercial satellite imaging industry hard during its early years.
“We have mitigation strategies for just about everything,” Murrett said.
Murrett noted that the commercial imagery market landscape has changed dramatically in the last five years and will continue to change over the next five. One of the biggest changes is the emergence of non-U.S. sources of satellite imagery, and Murrett said the NGA is eager to exploit these and build close working relationships with U.S. allies.
The U.S. Air Force, acting through an intermediary, recently awarded Canada’s MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates a contract worth $9.5 million to study potential U.S. military applications for the company’s government-backed Radarsat-2 satellite. Radarsat-2, a more capable version of Canada’s existing Radarsat-1 satellite, currently is scheduled for launch later this year
declined to say whether NGA has any involvement in the Radarsat-2 study, but confirmed the agency’s interest in data from that satellite as well as others planned internationally. “It is pretty clear to all of us that the integration of international sources of remote sensing is going to be a part of our future,” he said, adding that satellites planned in Europe and Asia also are part of the mix.
The NGA today uses a contracting vehicle called ClearView to buy imagery collected by DigitalGlobe’sQuickbird and GeoEye’sIkonos satellites, which were built and launched without government help. The NextView program was structured differently because without an up-front government investment it was doubtful that the companies could afford to deploy additional satellites.
In an Aug. 2 interview, Brender said GeoEye is exploring several options for future satellite systems that will depend in part on the level of support the NGA provides after NextView expires. He declined to say whether GeoEye would build and launch a GeoEye-1 follow on in the absence of another NextView-type NGA investment.
Chuck Herring, a spokesman for DigitalGlobe of Boulder, Colo., noted that his company is building a more capable version of its WorldView-1 satellite with its own funding. WorldView-2 is expected to launch sometime in 2008, he said. Beyond that, he said the government’s decision on how to structure the post NextView contract would have a bearing on the company’s future satellite procurement decisions.