NRO planning shift to smaller satellites, new ground system

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ORLANDO, Florida – The director of the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates the country’s spy satellites, said May 18 that the intelligence agency, known for its gigantic satellites, intends to increase its use of cubesats in the near future.

Betty Sapp, the head of the NRO, rarely grants interviews and her annual speech at the GEOINT conference is one of the few, if only, unclassified opportunities to better understand how the agency is operating.

While the NRO is often associated with some of the space industry’s heaviest and largest satellites, Sapp said the NRO is also launching cubesats, and not just as experiments or technical demonstrations.

“Now, we’re using them for actual mission application,” she said.

The NRO has sponsored more than 15 cubesats on various launches over the last five years.

“Cubesats, smaller sats, combined with affordable launch, are a huge enabler for us,” she said. “It’s exciting.”

The new technology allows the NRO to “chase” missions that otherwise would have been too expensive, she said. Because NRO budgets and missions are classified, Sapp declined to offer additional details on the cubesat missions.

Sapp also said the NRO’s next-generation ground control architecture, a common ground system that would allow the intelligence community to operate the nation’s spy satellites from one platform, would move away from ground systems built for individual programs.

The new system would take “full advantage” of the private sector by improving processing speeds and data encryption. As such, it could automatically redirect NRO satellites to gather additional data as well as “notice the unusual hidden among the host of the usual (and) anticipate the next move, not just respond to the one just made,” Sapp said.

Those comments were the most specific remarks Sapp has made on the next-generation program known as the Future Ground Architecture.

Sapp first mentioned the idea for the architecture in an interview with Signal Magazine last year. Among the ideas is that the system would work with the space architecture as a whole and predict where to aim space assets, some of which were tested in its Sentient Enterprise Program in recent years.

In addition, Frank Cavelli, the NRO’s principal deputy director, mentioned the new ground system in written testimony before the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee March 15.

“Our Future Ground Architecture will transform our ground architecture into an integrated enterprise which empowers users of all types with the capabilities to receive, process, and generate tailored, timely, highly-assured, and actionable intelligence,” Cavelli said.