NRO plans for immediate and long-term acquisition of commercial satellite data

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DENVER – Since Russian forces began mobilizing to invade Ukraine, commercial satellite operators have supplied U.S. intelligence agencies with extensive electro-optical, synthetic aperture radar and radio frequency data.

BlackSky, Maxar Technologies and Planet, for example, have shared “millions and millions of square kilometers of imagery” over Ukraine and Russia, specifically, Peter Muend, director of the National Reconnaissance Office Commercial Systems Program Office, said April 25 at the GEOINT Symposium.

Muend also cited Capella Space for providing extensive SAR data and HawkEye 360 for supplying RF data to U.S. government agencies. Those agencies, in turn, are sharing imagery and data with U.S. partners and allies.

Commercial satellite imagery and data have been featured prominently in news reports and social media posts since the Russia invaded Ukraine.

“I have to say I’m very impressed and proud that the commercial providers in many cases that we have as our partners are leading the charge, making sure that it’s becoming a more transparent world especially in light of the actions going on in Ukraine,” Muend said.

The war is occurring at an inflection point for commercial Earth observation. Dozens of companies in the United States and around the world are building constellations of tens or hundreds of satellites equipped with sensors to reveal what’s happening on the ground.

Recognizing the value of those datasets, NRO has issued contracts to satisfy immediate needs, while undertaking the formal process of drafting requirements for long-term programs of record to bring commercial capabilities into an integrated architecture that includes classified U.S. government systems.

Crisis Clause

To track activity in and around Ukraine, NRO has “added scope and value to many” commercial data contracts, Muend said. In many cases, the agency “has added or exercised a crisis clause to enable enhanced responsiveness on a 24 by 7 basis,” he added.

In addition, NRO has worked very closely with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and combatant commands “to facilitate access to and rapid dissemination of commercial imagery, RF data and certainly SAR data as well,” Muend said.

Imagery and data have been shared with a wide variety of NRO partners through NGA’s Global Enhanced GEOINT Delivery System, which has evolved to include SAR data.

“We’re pushing some of our commercial radar data that we’re buying through that same platform and it is having a dramatic effect on those partners and allies that we are pushing the data to,” Muend said.

Programs of Record

NRO is the in the process of establishing a program of record for commercial satellite imagery called Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL).

“EOCL is underpinned by validated requirements,” Muend said. “The community has formally stood up and said these are our requirements over the long term.”

With requirements in place, NRO is seeking funding for the new program of record.

“The budget reflects the requirements and those two, of course, need to align,” Muend said.

The NRO plans to follow a similar process for SAR. After issuing a Broad Agency Announcement to survey commercial capabilities, NRO awarded contracts in January to Airbus U.S., Capella, Iceye U.S., PredaSAR and Umbra. Through the contracts, NRO is evaluating the various commercial capabilities.

Informed by our study contracts, NRO is gaining “a good understanding of where the marketplace is going” and also working with NGA and the intelligence community to “think through what commercial class radar needs we are going to have in the future and how those are going to intersect with what we’re providing on the national side,” Muend said.

RF Monitoring is the next capability NRO intends to explore in depth.

For commercial RF monitoring, NRO will evaluate on-orbit capabilities as well as modeling and simulation data for planned constellations. It’s all part of the intelligence community effort to determines “how commercial RF is going to play in that larger next generation [signals intelligence] overhead architecture,” Muend said.

NRO also is eager to explore commercial hyperspectral data.

“We have contracts with at least one hyperspectral provider now and are eager to move that forward,” Muend said.

HyspecIQ won an NRO study contract in 2019 that the agency extended through Sept. 30, 2022.