NRO aims to move fast by relying on commercial products, expanding internal research and development

by

COLORADO SPRINGS — The National Reconnaissance Office developed and launched Corona, the first U.S. imaging satellite in two years. NRO is determined to regain that speed and agility by expanding internal research and development, and taking advantage of commercial capabilities, NRO Director Betty Sapp said April 17 at the 34th Space Symposium here.

“Commercial space will be fully leveraged in satisfying user needs and fully considered in the development of every future space system,” Sapp said. “Just as we do in other areas, we want to design only what we must and buy everything that we can.”

As an example of its increased reliance on commercial products, Sapp cited NRO’s plan to take over management of the U.S. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s EnhancedView contract beginning Sept. 1.

“NRO and NGA are working together to make sure that transfer is seamless to users in the near term,” Sapp said. “The potential gain for the future is huge. We see a real opportunity for synergy in operations, acquisition and delivery timelines.”

NRO also is eager to figure out how it can take advantage of the surge in companies building small launch vehicles, which NRO referred to in a March 9 draft Request for Proposals as “tiny rockets.”

NRO launched four small satellites “in the past year and we have many, many more coming,” Sapp said. “We want to explore what the tiny rocket marketplace can provide for us.”

In response to the draft RFP, NRO received a lot of comments, Sapp said, including the universal request to stop using the term “tiny” rockets. “We’ll work on that before we try to get the final RFP out later this month,” she said.

In the past, NRO developed its own satellite buses, processing and communications systems because its needs could not be met by commercial industry, Sapp said.

“Those days are long gone,” she added. “Leveraging commercially available products and services allows us to focus our investment on the things only we uniquely can do.”

NRO will continue to use small satellites to test technologies and deploy new capabilities quickly. In addition, NRO is investigating the use of small and large satellites in “integrated architectures that meet user needs with far more affordability, resiliency and tolerance for failure,” Sapp said.

In its quest for speed, NRO also is expanding internal research.

“Our research and development teams are developing, maturing and transitioning the next generation technologies required to keep us ahead of changing targets and threats,” Sapp said.

In every NRO ground station, for example, the agency has “really smart people who understand the sensor in space and who are in direct touch with the users,” Sapp said. “They can write software on the operations floor, software that can be uploaded to the spacecraft and put into ground processing systems.”

When software isn’t enough, NRO’s internal teams develop hardware “to meet broader needs defined by our community and defined by the target and threat trends we see,” Sapp said. “Once the technology is mature. We want to get into space in two years or less.”

Some of NRO’s research and development work is focused on technologies the agency needs to quickly share information gathered in space with military and intelligence community customers on the ground, like onboard processing, autonomous target recognition and direct downlink, Sapp said.

For Corona, the U.S. got a “huge running start” because people were working on the technology before the president called for the capability, Sapp said. “My research and development team is working today to give the NRO that running start on new future capabilities,” she added.