Planet Labs flock release
Planet began sending its first "flock" of Doves from the International Space Station in 2014. Now, the company operates the world's largest constellation of Earth observation satellites. Credit: Planet

SAN FRANCISCO – The National Reconnaissance Office announced the award Oct. 15 of a commercial imagery contract of undisclosed value to Planet Labs Federal, a subsidiary of Planet, the Earth observation company with about 150 imaging satellites in orbit.

In April, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency exercised a $5.9 million option to buy current and archival Planet imagery for six months. Unlike NGA, NRO does not reveal the value of contracts it awards.

NRO operates a fleet of its own satellites including “very large systems to smallsats and cubesats as well,” said Peter Muend, director of NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office. “Increasingly commercial systems are part of the overall solution set.”

At the 2019 GEOINT conference in June, NRO announced the award of study contracts to BlackSky, Maxar Technologies and Planet to evaluate “how the commercial imagery providers could satisfy our needs moving forward, certainly inclusive of but also beyond where EnhancedView is today,” Muend told SpaceNews at Planet Explore, an Oct. 15 conference here for Planet’s customers, partners and data product end users.

The new contract to Planet “is part of that larger effort and a step toward the future,” Muend said.

NRO is purchasing an unclassified, multiyear subscription for daily, large-area, three- to five-meter resolution commercial imagery gathered by Planet’s Dove constellation.

“It is not a study contract, this is an operational purchase of imagery because we can see the value,” Muend said. “We are eager to start leveraging that imagery and that capability and working to integrate it into our larger enterprise architecture; to make sure it does fit into the architecture and the workflows in a seamless way to make sure that we can get the best value.”

NRO is continuing to evaluate the capabilities other Earth observation firms offer, Muend said.

Toward the end of the 2020 fiscal year, NRO will begin to complete the study contracts announced in June and take “steps toward satisfying the larger set of commercial-class GEOINT requirements we have,” Muend said.

NRO recently awarded a contract to HySpecIQ, a commercial hyperspectral imagery startup.

HySpecIQ “can absolutely provide value and we are eager to see where they can contribute,” Muend said. “If and where any U.S. domestic commercial provider can provide value, we should be there to leverage that capability.”

“With its large constellation of satellites, Planet can image country – and even continent-sized areas – every day,” Muend said in a statement included in an NRO news release. “This capability to provide daily revisit over large areas of the Earth gives analysts unparalleled opportunities to discover and monitor activity for a wide range of applications. The NRO is committed to ensuring NGA and its customers continue to have access to Planet imagery to perform the vital analysis needed to create value-added geospatial products for our partners and policy makers.”

NGA has been purchasing Planet imagery since 2016. That subscription “played a role in our analytic transformation, where we are now focused less on pixels and more on information content and services,” David Gauthier, director of NGA’s Source Commercial and Business Operations Group, said in a statement in the same news release. 

Robbie Schingler, Planet co-founder and chief strategy officer, said, “Planet’s ability to deliver near real-time satellite imagery provides valuable information to decision-makers in the greater national security community — allowing them to adapt to the changing technological and geopolitical landscape.”

Jen Marcus, Planet Federal vice president of U.S. Government Strategic Partnerships, said in a statement for the Planet news release, “We are encouraged by the commitment from the NRO and NGA to collaborate for a seamless transition of the subscription contract for Planet’s imagery.” She called the award ” a testament to truly unified effort these agencies wish to build in support of the mission and enabling the end user.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...