Planet used its upgraded Dove satellites in January to capture this image of San Francisco. The new satellites include an upgraded camera for improved image sharpness, radiometric consistency, and spectral precision. Credit: Planet

COLORADO SPRINGS — The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has exercised a $5.9 million contract option to acquire current and archival Earth imagery from Planet’s small satellite constellation through mid-September.

Under the contract, NGA continues to obtain access to Planet’s daily global imagery to monitor locations of interest, freeing up the government’s own intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities for different jobs, Jonas Skinner, NGA’s Planet program manager, told SpaceNews. “We can look back over the last few years and see what’s happening over time,” he added.

In addition to imagery, NGA draws on Planet’s automated data processing “to augment and facilitate NGA analysis processes,” NGA said in a March 21 news release. Planet trains machine learning algorithms to identify objects including roads, buildings, ships and planes. “We can see very quickly how things are progressing at a particular site,” Skinner said.

Planet data is proving useful for monitoring ports and airfields as well as identifying illegal mining and deforestation in Central and South America, Skinner said.

For Planet, it was gratifying to learn combatant commanders and other units NGA supports see value in the company’s products, Jen Marcus, Planet vice president of U.S. federal operations, told SpaceNews. “It was a call from the customers to continue the contract,” she added.

Planet also sees the NGA contract extension as a signal of continuity under the agency’s new director, Navy Vice Adm. Robert Sharp. Robert Cardillo, the NGA director who retired in February when Sharp took the reins, helped push the agency to explore the value of commercial partnerships and small satellites.

“We’ve had a good relationship with Robert Cardillo, supporting his vision for the agency,” Marcus said. Cardillo had recently retired when NGA officials were deciding whether to award Planet an option to continue providing imagery and automated processing. “We felt positive about being able to continue serving the agency in that transition and being able to support Adm. Sharp’s vision,” Marcus said.

NGA obtains high-resolution imagery and other types of geospatial data, which it analyzes and supplies to Defense Department and intelligence agencies.

 In August, the National Reconnaissance Office took over NGA’s EnhancedView contract and announced a $300 million one-year award for continued access to updated and archival Earth imagery from satellites operated by DigitalGlobe, a Maxar Technologies company. NRO can extend the EnhancedView contract through one-year options.

In addition to working with Planet, NGA is watching the evolution of the small satellite industry. “We’re constantly evaluating our changing mission versus the changing environment of the market to make decisions strategically,” Skinner said. “Planet has been a leader for the last few years, but there are quite a few other companies coming online that we will have to closely monitor and evaluate to see what they’re bringing to the table.”   

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...