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) plans to issue contracts worth up to $85 million apiece for radar satellite data to as many as four commercial satellite operators, according to an Aug. 11 posting on the Federal Business Opportunities Web site.

No U.S. companies currently operate commercial radar imaging satellites due in part to strict U.S. regulation of the technology, but several international firms are marketing radar data collected by government-funded spacecraft. To participate, U.S. companies will have to serve as resellers of this data; industry sources said such brokering arrangements likely will be necessary because of the sensitivities associated with NGA operations.

The NGA is interested in firms that have synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellites now on orbit that collect data in the X-band, C-band or another commercially available band, according to the agency’s solicitation. Contractors must be able to deliver the radar products both from their own facilities as well as via direct downlink to U.S. government ground stations. The NGA’s requirements are too broad to be satisfied by any single existing radar satellite system, so multiple contract awards are anticipated, according to industry officials following the procurement.

The NGA will award firm-fixed-price, indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts to as many as four commercial firms, each worth as much as $85 million over five years, the solicitation shows. Responses to the request for proposals are due Sept. 15; the agency has not provided an expected contract award date.

With their ability to collect imagery in all weather conditions, day or night, SAR satellites offer important surveillance capabilities sought after 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 trip wire to cue higher-resolution systems. For example, a radar satellite could cover an entire coast of the United States in a single orbital pass and inform homeland security officials of an unexpected ship approaching the shore.

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 companies operate satellites that complement more-capable government-owned spacecraft in supporting military and intelligence community users.

One firm the United States has purchased radar satellite data from for more than 10 years is MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) of British Columbia, Canada. MDA owns and operates Radarsat-2, a SAR imaging satellite that was financed primarily by the Canadian government. The Canadian government has plans to fund three near-clones of Radarsat-2 that would begin launching around 2013.

The U.S. government has been buying around $10 million worth of radar data from MDA annually for the last several years, Steve Oldham, the company’s vice president of space missions and robotics, said in a Sept. 10 interview. This NGA acquisition appears to signal a shift in the Defense Department’s philosophy toward a true multi-tiered space-based radar architecture, he said.

“The problem with radar is you can design many types,” Oldham said. “If you design a system that is intended to do everything, you end up with a program like the Space Radar, and you end up canceling it because it costs so much money, takes way too long and is far too risky. The way to solve that is to buy a combination of assets and split the requirements out that way.”

Space Radar was a program funded by the U.S. Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office that was designed to serve tactical-military and strategic-intelligence customers in equal measure. It was canceled early last year.

Several other international firms are expected to compete with MDA for the NGA contracts. A joint Italian Space Agency-Telespazio venture called e-Geos sells data from the Cosmos Skymed radar constellation that was financed by the Italian government. Three of the constellation’s four planned satellites are now operational.

Astrium Services along with the German government developed and launched the high-resolution TerraSAR-X satellite in 2007 and will launch a sister satellite, TanDEM-X, in October. The company’s products are offered to the U.S. government via reseller 21st Century Systems Inc. of Omaha, Neb.

Industry officials also expect a proposal offering data from the TecSAR satellite developed by the Israeli Ministry of Defense and launched in 2008. Data from the satellite has been used in recent U.S. military war games. Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems of Los Angeles has an agreement with the Israeli government to market TechSAR technology to the U.S. government, which so far has been unsuccessful. Northrop Grumman spokesman Bob Bishop would not say whether the company would try to act as a reseller of TecSAR data to the U.S. government for this competition.

NGA spokesman Marshall Hudson declined to make NGA program officials available for interviews regarding the acquisition. In an e-mailed statement, he said “the NGA is currently establishing working experiments with other [military and intelligence community] partners to test and use the commercially available SAR data in a variety of ways. While these experiments are underway, the NGA is also looking at ways to improve efficiencies regarding acquiring and disseminating data from non-U.S. sources.”