SAN ANTONIO — The National Reconnaissance Office awarded commercial imagery study contracts to BlackSky Global, Maxar Technologies and Planet, Troy Meink, who leads NRO’s Geospatial Intelligence Directorate, announced June 3. If all goes as planned, procurement contracts could follow in six to 12 months, he said at the 2019 GEOINT Symposium here.

The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) announced plans in 2018 to hand over responsibility for acquiring commercial satellite imagery to NRO. NGA continues to write requirements for the imagery and deliver it to the U.S. Defense Department and intelligence community.

The latest Worldwide Threat Assessment, an unclassified report on U.S. intelligence shared with the Senate Intelligence Committee in January, says the intelligence community needs to be “very aggressive in how we innovate and how we take advantage of every opportunity we have, commercially and otherwise, to maintain the advantages we’ve traditionally had,” Meink said. “Based on the increasing requirements we are getting from NGA, we needed to look at getting access to more vendors.”

In an effort to gauge existing commercial capabilities for electro optical imagery, NRO issued a request for information, or RFI, in January. To ensure wide dissemination, NRO announced the RFI on Facebook and Twitter. “I was not even aware the NRO had Facebook and Twitter accounts,” Meink said.

Based on RFI responses, NRO awarded study contracts of undisclosed value to BlackSky, Maxar and Planet. NRO already was working with Maxar, having signed a contract extending the EnhancedView program in November 2018. The new study contract focuses on how NRO can take advantage of some of Maxar’s new capabilities, Meink said.

Planet and BlackSky are new NRO vendors. BlackSky has two satellites in orbit and plans to launch six more by the end of the year.

“Being selected by the NRO to participate in the study contract validates how BlackSky has quickly become a trusted partner of providing mission-critical global intelligence,” BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole said in a statement. “We’re combining high-revisit satellite imaging with a unique analytic solution for site monitoring, all at a price point not seen before with traditional providers. We look forward to building a long-term partnership with the NRO and continuing our support of the U.S. government’s existing and emerging security and intelligence needs.”

Planet gather daily global imagery with 140 satellites in orbit. NRO issued a study contract to Planet Federal, a subsidiary Planet established in 2018 to work closely with U.S. government agencies.

“We’re excited that Planet’s data can help further the NRO’s strategy of embracing commercial imagery in support of its customers across the U.S. Government,” Robbie Schingler, Planet co-founder and chief strategy officer, said in a statement.

If all goes as planned, NRO will follow-up the study contracts in six to 12 months with procurement contracts, Meink said.

At the same time, NRO is preparing to look for vendors with plans to offer other types of imagery including radar. “The next step will be to look at the companies that don’t have capability to offer right now,” Meink said.

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...