On Small Satellites, NGA Putting its Money Where its Mouth Is
WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency plans to spend tens of millions of dollars studying ways to use data from emerging startups that are deploying constellations of small imaging satellites.
NGA Director Robert Cardillo said during a Nov. 16 press conference that the intelligence agency would request funding for the program as part of its fiscal year 2017 budget request, now being finalized. Because the 2017 budget has yet been presented to Congress by the White House, and NGA spending in any case is classified, specific dollar amounts for the program are not available.
But Cardillo said it was safe to assume it was tens of millions of dollars. “We have moved real money,” he said.
Some of the money in the fiscal year 2017 budget request would go to In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the U.S. intelligence community, Cardillo said. In-Q-Tel has provided seed money for several space-related startups in recent years, officials with the organization say.
The 2017 money, if approved, could lead to the first opportunities for emerging small-satellite companies to get a taste of government contracts.
According to a strategy document released Oct. 26, the NGA envisions eventually entering into a variety of contracting schemes with the newcomers, many funded by Silicon Valley venture capital. Some of these companies have already begun launching imaging constellations of unprecedented size.
The initiative would not affect the NGA’s current EnhancedView service contract with longtime supplier DigitalGlobe of Westminster, Colorado. That contract is thought to be roughly $300 million per year.
“Please don’t take this as old versus new,” Cardillo said of the new strategy.
But it suggests that DigitalGlobe, which over the past decade has swallowed up its peer-competitors, soon will have company as a provider to the mapmaking and imagery analysis agency, which buys commercial data on behalf of the military and intelligence community.
“We’ll no longer simply admire the potential” of small satellites, Cardillo said. “We won’t wait on the sidelines.”
NGA officials have said the organization could release a broad agency announcement by the end of the year to begin experimenting with these new companies. While the agency’s new commercial strategy does not lay out specific timetables, it does include five phases, each six months long, which would give the NGA about two more years to watch the industry develop and to assemble an acquisition plan.
The rapid growth in capabilities and applications for small satellites also has caught the attention of the U.S. Air Force, whose interest is more likely in the hardware as opposed to commercial services.
Maj. Gen. Roger Teague, director of space programs for the Air Force’s acquisition chief, hinted that the service is watching the emerging industry closely as it seeks ways to make its space capabilities more ubiquitous and resilient.
“The need for persistence is absolutely there and the dollars are following,” he said, pointing to the need for persistent infrared radar for missile warning and for persistent protected communications.
During a conference on small satellites here sponsored by the NGA and the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, speakers and panelists touted the potential of small satellites, but cautioned that getting them into space remains a formidable challenge.
“Right now the launch situation is inadequate,” said Tom Webber, director of the space and strategic systems directorate at the U.S. Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command. “The timeline to get rockets these days, even if you can afford them, is completely unacceptable for a tactical Army mission that says next week you need to be in this part of the world.”
The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report Oct. 29 saying none of several Defense Department efforts to field quick-reaction launch vehicles has advanced past the development stage.
Jason Andrews, chief executive of Spaceflight Industries, a small-satellite manufacturer and launch service coordinator based in Seattle, said outside of a few orbits that are readily available to satellites riding as secondary payloads, companies face “a world of hurt” in trying to get to space. He encouraged the Defense Department to earmark some of the $5.5 billion budgeted for space protection activities over the next five years for responsive launch capabilities.