Christopher Scolese, director of the National Reconnaissance Office. Credit :Small Satellite Conference

WASHINGTON — Christopher Scolese, director of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, said the agency is becoming more reliant on small satellites for fast and low cost experiments.

“Cubesats allow us to respond more quickly,” Scolese said Aug. 3 during a live webcast at the 34th Annual Small Satellite Conference, which is a virtual event this year.

“Smallsats can provide lots of opportunities to do science, to provide information for the intelligence community and to allow us to develop technologies and capabilities,” Scolese said.

The NRO is part of the U.S. intelligence community and works with the Department of Defense developing, acquiring, launching and operating the nation’s intelligence satellites.

“At the NRO, satellite systems of all sizes are important to us, large and small,” he said. “Ultimately, physics determines how big, how many, and where a satellite is located.”

Scolese said he could not discuss specific plans to develop a “hybrid architecture” of government and commercial remote sensing satellites, but insisted the agency wants to take advantage of privately funded innovation and intends to procure more data from the commercial sector. The availability of low cost small satellites and launch services allows the agency to put up more technologies in space “to research future mission capabilities,” said Scolese.

“You can get something up in one to three years or faster, and the price of launch is lower because you can rideshare,” he said. ‘We’ll be able to do more with smaller satellites.”

In a pre-recorded video presentation, Scolese highlighted the results of a recent experiment the NRO launched to test commercial technologies, including computer processors used in the oil and gas industry.

Two NRO cubesats flew to the International Space Station in November carrying 14 research experiments. This was part of a program the NRO calls “Greenlighting” to evaluate the performance and space survivability of technologies developed by commercial companies.

The plan is to qualify the commercial processor used in the oil and gas industry for government space systems, said Scolese. “Even though the environments in space, and the oil and gas industry are different, both are very harsh on micro electronic components,” he said. “With Greenlighting, we were able to successfully take a component developed for an entirely different purpose and evaluate it for use in space.”

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...