WASHINGTON — Companies in the satellite remote sensing industry such as Maxar, Planet and BlackSky are working to expand their offerings beyond optical imagery, looking to capture a broader spectrum of data from space.

All three companies are dominant in optical satellite imaging that uses visible light or near-infrared light to capture pictures of the Earth’s surface from space. They are now expanding into novel sensor phenomenologies — such as radar, radio frequency and hyperspectral — in response to growing demand for more intricate multi-sensor intelligence. 

“What we’re seeing is larger companies that are acquiring different pieces of the puzzle to put together an integrated solution,” said David Gauthier, former director of commercial and business operations at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Gauthier is chief strategy officer at the consulting firm GXO Inc. and recently joined the board of advisors of the hyperspectral imagery startup Orbital Sidekick.

The aggregation of optical imagery with other forms of satellite data is a powerful capability that helps to gain deeper insights, Gauthier told SpaceNews

The demand for synthetic aperture radar imagery, for example, was accelerated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the need for sensors that could penetrate thick clouds. While electro-optical images are the most visually compelling, the conflict showcased the value of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging satellites that can see at night and through the weather. 

Maxar’s strategic moves

Maxar Technologies, which operates a constellation of high-resolution optical imaging satellites, has moved to expand its SAR and RF capabilities. 

The company in February announced a deal with SAR startup Umbra to get dedicated access to the company’s radar imaging constellation. 

Maxar also recently acquired radio-frequency mapping startup Aurora Insight, a year after it made a strategic investment in the company.  Radio-frequency data is used to identify the location of ships at sea or the source of hostile electronic jamming, for example, based on real-world measurements of the RF environment. 

On March 14 Maxar announced a new “RF Solutions” business line to provide “detailed information and insights on spectral activity, and thus into human activity.”

BlackSky and Planet pursue hyperspectral imagery

Gauthier noted that two other players in the optical imaging industry — BlackSky and Planet — were among six companies that last week won study contracts from the National Reconnaissance Office to assess their capabilities in hyperspectral satellite imagery.

BlackSky and Planet are “signaling that they expect to have a hyperspectral system in their fleet, when today they don’t,” he said. 

In a news release, BlackSky said its current geospatial intelligence platform combines electro-optical, SAR and radio frequency data and analytics. “Hyperspectral capabilities are a natural extension,” the company said.

Hyperspectral sensors capture data across numerous spectral bands and can offer more detailed and precise information about objects based on material makeup. For example, these sensors can identify artificial versus real vegetation, decoy equipment and hazardous materials. 

BlackSky does not currently have hyperspectral satellites but under the NRO contract plans to “demonstrate technical capabilities via modeling and simulation and validate business and cybersecurity concepts of operation.”

Planet in September announced plans for a hyperspectral constellation, named Tanager, in partnership with the nonprofit Carbon Mapper Coalition

The company said the agreement with the NRO will allow the agency to evaluate Planet’s future capabilities to detect greenhouse gas emissions and other applications that leverage hyperspectral space sensors.

Large companies diversify

Maxar, Planet and BlackSky last year won the NRO’s largest ever procurement contracts for commercial electro-optical imagery, “so they have the funds to expand and go multi-phenomenology in what they can offer,” Gauthier said.

By contrast, Orbital Sidekick and other startups that won NRO agreements are focused on providing a niche capability and “maybe, could even be more cost effective at doing the one thing,” Gauthier said.

Most startup companies, he said, “especially those trying to launch satellites, are thinking about their tech hardware first and not thinking about selling analytics or selling multiple phenomenology data to the end user.”

Orbital Sidekick said it plans to launch its first six-satellite hyperspectral constellation during 2023. 

There’s room in the market both for specialists in a particular sensor phenomenology and for larger players that can provide a more integrated service, said Gauthier.

“In my former role as a government buyer, it was easier for me to sign one contract with a fusion analytics provider that has already done the work to have business relationships with multiple imaging companies,” he said. “They have a core team of analytic expertise and software developers, and then they’re selling you the subscription to the insights that we need.”

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...