Image of the United Kingdom Isles of Scilly off the Cornish coast captured March 11, 2020 by Airbus 50-centimeter-resolution Pleiades satellite. Credit: CNES

WASHINGTON — The National Reconnaissance Office announced Dec. 5 it has signed agreements with five commercial providers of electro-optical satellite imagery, including four startups that are just starting to build out their constellations. 

Airbus U.S. Space and Defense, Albedo Space, Hydrosat, Muon Space and Turion Space were selected for the NRO’s Strategic Commercial Enhancements program, which seeks new and emerging types of electro-optical imagery beyond what the agency already procures from Maxar, BlackSky and Planet Labs under a 2022 contract known as the Electro-Optical Commercial Layer.

The NRO has access to significant commercial sources of imagery under the EOCL contracts but it’s now looking to capture the next wave of technologies that have emerged in the industry in recent years, such as commercial non-Earth imagery, or the imaging of objects in space.

“The commercial EO market continues to expand with new capabilities and new providers,” said NRO Director Chris Scolese. “We are excited to continue our work with mission partners and the user community to continually explore new providers and emerging capabilities so we can deliver first-class commercial EO solutions today and well into the future.”

The five Strategic Commercial Enhancements contracts are projected to extend for 2.5 years. During the first stage, the NRO will examine the companies’ capabilities at both the individual sensor and constellation levels, as well as business and cybersecurity planning. In the second stage, the agency will assess on-orbit capabilities and procure data products.

Pete Muend, director of the NRO’s commercial systems program office, said these contracts “demonstrate our commitment to meet increasing customer demands with greater commercial capacity.”  

These awards follow six agreements with commercial hyperspectral imaging companies awarded in March 2023, six commercial radio-frequency remote sensing contracts awarded in September 2022, and five commercial radar contracts in January 2022.

New constellations

The companies selected by the NRO include an established Earth imaging data provider, Airbus, and four emerging players like Hydrosat, a thermal infrared data and analytics company that provides geospatial intelligence for climate, food security and the environment through daily surface temperature data and analytics. 

Hydrosat’s contract with the NRO includes the evaluation of high-resolution thermal imagery from its planned constellation of satellites, CEO Pieter Fossel said in a news release.

Another startup selected by the NRO, Muon Space, will provide multispectral electro-optical and infrared data collected by the company’s future climate monitoring constellation, designed to provide global coverage with rapid revisits for a persistent understanding of global thermal activity.

California startup Turion Space is building a non-Earth imaging constellation to provide space situational awareness services.

The startup Albedo plans to operate satellites in very low Earth orbit to gather ultra-high resolution visible imagery as well as high-resolution thermal infrared imagery. Albedo also plans to provide nighttime imaging, non-Earth imaging and video.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...