NGA to Seek Higher-Resolution Commercial Satellite Imagery

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) plans to sign new imagery contracts with commercial satellite operators next year that will be structured like the purchasing deals currently in place but yield higher-quality data, an agency official said.

As part of the new electro-optical satellite imaging plan approved by U.S. President Barack Obama earlier this year, the NGA intends to buy commercial imagery with ground resolution as fine as a quarter-meter, Winston Beauchamp, the NGA’s acting technical executive, said in a Sept. 23 interview. However, the NGA faces a potential obstacle on Capitol Hill, as key U.S. senators have balked at certain aspects of the overall plan.

The NGA intends to issue a request for proposals for its program this fall and hopes to have contracts in place by spring 2010, with imagery deliveries starting two years to three years later, Beauchamp said. The new contracting vehicle, called EnhancedView, will be similar to the NGA’s current NextView program, under which the agency made upfront payments that helped underwrite new-generation imaging satellites by DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., and GeoEye of Dulles, Va. 

Those satellites cost about $500 million each and feature 1.1-meter-aperture telescopes that image the Earth with a resolution of about half of a meter, which is sharp enough to discern objects of that size or larger. Both companies are under contract through March to provide as much as $12.5 million worth of imagery per month to the NGA.

“The intent [of EnhancedView] is a little bit different in that we will be asking for some capabilities that are a little better than what the commercial industry wants,” Beauchamp said. “What we’re looking for is for them to get farther down and closer to the government license, approaching a quarter-meter.”

The NGA wants to squeeze out higher-resolution imagery from the same type of satellite platform the companies now operate, which can be done by flying the satellite at a lower altitude. However, this comes at the expense of time in the satellite’s operating life.

In addition, the satellite operators prefer not to collect imagery with resolution better than a half meter because they are prohibited from selling it to anyone but the U.S. government and certain allies, Beauchamp said. Both DigitalGlobe and GeoEye have two-tiered licenses from the U.S. Department of Commerce that allow them to sell imagery with resolution as fine as a half-meter commercially and as fine as a quarter-meter to the government.

EnhancedView is one part of a larger satellite imagery strategy announced April 7 by U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair to serve both the military and intelligence community. Commonly referred to as two-plus-two, the plan would have the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office buy and operate two exquisite-class spy satellites based on an evolution of the legacy satellites built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver. The NGA, meanwhile, would buy data from less-capable commercial-class satellites at volumes equivalent to the output of two spacecraft.

The plan is supported in the House and Senate versions of the 2010 Defense Appropriations bill, but faces opposition in the Senate defense and intelligence authorization bills. In a letter sent to Blair in March, Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, railed against the choice of the exquisite system, which he said is the most expensive and risky avenue that could be pursued.

The Senate Intelligence Authorization bill, which passed Sept. 16, pushes an entirely different approach for the government-owned satellites and supports more technically advanced commercial satellites, government and industry sources said. On the commercial side, it supports a plan similar to what is proposed in the Senate’s version of Defense Authorization bill. That measure recommends buying a 1.1-meter-aperture commercial-class imaging satellite — or an equivalent volume of imagery — and a more complex and expensive 1.5-meter-aperture satellite or imagery equivalent. Both the House Intelligence Authorization and Defense Authorization bills support the administration’s plan, and the differences with the Senate bills will have to be hashed out in conference.

Meanwhile, both commercial operators continue to make progress on their next-generation satellites. DigitalGlobe has a scheduled Oct. 8 launch date for its next satellite, dubbed WorldView-2, which it financed on its own without the promise of government support.

“The EnhancedView program will allow NGA to take full advantage of additional capacity provided by WorldView-2,” DigitalGlobe Chairman and Chief Executive Jill Smith said in an e-mailed response to questions.

GeoEye has maintained it would not commit to building and launching its next satellite, GeoEye-2, without a government contract or guarantee in place. But the company has spent about $60 million to date developing the camera for the satellite, which could be on orbit in 2012 or 2013, GeoEye spokesman Mark Brender said via e-mail.