ORLANDO, Fla. — A s the White House puts the finishing touches on its budget request to Congress for 2008, the U.S. national security community continues to debate the capabilities to be included on a new series of photoreconnaissance satellites that likely will have to be under contract within the next year or so.

According to sources, the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which buys and operates the nation’s spy satellites, is considering two main alternatives: a low-risk system relying heavily on proven technology, and a more capable system that likely would take longer and cost more to build. There also could be various combinations of the two.

The choice ultimately will depend in part on the how much funding is available in an era when many expect increased pressure on budgets for classified collection systems. Time is of the essence, because currently there is no long-term program in place for supplying the electro-optical imagery upon which the U.S. national security community so heavily relies, sources said.

The discussions are being watched anxiously by the commercial satellite imaging industry, which is hoping to carve out a role for itself in the new architecture. The two U.S. providers of high-resolution satellite imagery, GeoEye of Dulles, Va., and DigitalGlobe of Boulder, Colo., hold contracts with the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) that are funding each company’s new generation of satellites. But the government’s longer-term plans for supporting and utilizing those two companies are hazy.

The current planning stems from the NRO’s restructuring last year of the Future Imagery Architecture, a planned constellation of optical and radar satellites that was intended to meet U.S. national security image-collection needs well into the next decade. The first of those satellites was to have been launched in 2005, but prime contractor Boeing Integrated Defense Systems of St. Louis struggled mightily on the program, prompting the NRO to cancel the electro-optical portion of the effort.

As part of the restructuring, the NRO awarded Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., a contract for a system to fill the gap between the legacy photoreconnaissance satellites — built by Lockheed Martin — and whatever new system comes out of the current discussions.

The lower-risk approach under consideration, dubbed Midsat, was the subject of a classified request for information from industry that was issued early this year. The costlier but more-capable system is said by some to be favored by some in the intelligence community.

The NRO designs its satellites based on specifications given it by the NGA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and other organizations such as U.S. Strategic Command.

“The NRO is in the business of building reconnaissance satellites,” said Richard Oborn, a spokesman for the agency. “We always discuss what equipment is necessary to meet the requirements that are given to us.”

Meanwhile, the commercial imaging satellite operators are wondering where they might fit in. As part of the NGA’s NextView program, GeoEye and DigitalGlobe are building satellites with capabilities unprecedented in the commercial sector. Those satellites, which would be able to discern ground objects smaller than half a meter across, are scheduled to launch next year. The NGA has committed to buying imagery collected by these satellites through 2008 under the NextView program, and it is likely that the agency will extend its imagery purchases further into the future.

But it remains to be seen whether future NGA contracts will help underwrite the construction and launch of follow-on commercial satellites, or whether the agency will limit itself to data services contracts that do not involve hardware investments. This would leave DigitalGlobe and GeoEye to their own devices when it comes to recapitalizing their respective space assets.

David Burpee, a spokesman for the NGA, said the hope is that the industry will become self-sustaining in the years ahead. He said there are no current plans to underwrite additional satellites under the NextView program and that the nature of any follow-on contract has yet to be determined.

GeoEye and DigitalGlobe financed their current satellites without government help, but have not generated enough cash to recoup their investments. Both companies provide imagery from these satellites to the NGA under a program called ClearView.

Mark Brender, vice president of communications and marketing at GeoEye, said the commercial imagery providers have proven to be reliable partners of the government. “We are meeting the NGA’s mapping requirements now and will be able to do so in the future, even beyond NextView,” he said.

DigitalGlobe spokesman Chuck Herring said commercial satellites have demonstrated their utility under the ClearView contracts and will continue to do so under NextView. “We do believe we can play a larger role in satisfying more requirements as they are articulated to us by the U.S. government,” he said.

Herring also noted that commercial imagery is unclassified, which means it can be shared more easily than data from government platforms.

The Commercial Remote Sensing Policy signed by U.S. President George W. Bush in April 2003 directs government agencies including the NGA to look first to the commercial sector to meet their imagery needs. But sources point out that the Midsat satellites would be more capable than those DigitalGlobe and GeoEye are building under NextView, and that there are not nearly enough commercial satellites to fulfill more than a fraction of the military’s mapping needs.

There also are many in government who question whether GeoEye and DigitalGlobe are truly commercial companies given their dependence on government contracts for fleet recapitalization. If the government is the dominant customer, the argument goes, it gets the worst of both worlds: it does not reap the cost benefits normally associated with procuring commercial services that have a broad customer base; and it does not have control of the assets.

But the commercial satellite imaging industry also has supporters at the highest levels of the U.S. intelligence community. “We’ve got to embrace the commercial industry in a far more open way than we have in the past,” Charles Allen, chief intelligence officer in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said Nov. 16 following a keynote speech here at the Geoint 2006 symposium. The event was sponsored by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, a Washington-based group whose mission is to promote the use of geospatial information in the national security field. At a press conference following his speech, Allen said a stronger base of commercial imagery providers is needed. “We need more capability out there,” he said.

NRO Director Donald Kerr, responding to a question after giving his own speech Nov. 16 at the symposium, said it is “conceivable” that future commercial satellites will take over more of the duties now performed by National Technical Means, the government euphemism for spy satellites. But he said there are issues that first must be resolved, including better integration of commercial satellites into the government tasking system, as well as policy questions arising from having imagery precise enough for military targeting applications available for commercial sale.

Speaking with reporters after his speech, Kerr said the NRO and NGA are exploring a number of different models for integrating commercial operators more deeply into the national security imaging architecture. Among them is an arrangement whereby the satellites are owned by the government but operated commercially, he said.