U.S. Loosens Restrictions on Commercial Radar Satellites

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. government has relaxed licensing restrictions on commercial radar satellites, permitting U.S. companies to distribute higher quality data and potentially opening the door for a domestic market to blossom, industry officials said Oct. 7.

Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems of Los Angeles is the first company to receive a license to operate a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite under the new regulations, Tim Frei, Northrop Grumman’s vice president for national systems, said in an interview. The company was granted a license to develop and operate a satellite called Trinidad, which would be based on the Israeli TecSAR satellite now on orbit.

The U.S. Department of Commerce, in coordination with other federal agencies, is responsible for issuing licenses to sell optical and radar satellite imagery commercially. Until recently, the regulations barred U.S. companies from selling radar imagery with ground resolution finer than 3 meters. Northrop Grumman received notice from the Commerce Department Oct. 6 that the policy has been modified to allow commercial sales of 1-meter radar satellite imagery, Frei said. Trinidad is designed to collect 1-meter radar imagery, which is sharp enough to distinguish ground objects or features of that size or larger.

The U.S. government develops and operates large, highly sophisticated radar satellites for military and intelligence users. But the nation does not have a second-tier commercial industry that operates SAR satellites the way U.S. firms operate electro-optical imagery satellites. Internationally, several companies have built commercial radar satellites with the help of their governments, and the U.S. government has bought data from several of these firms.

Last year a joint military-intelligence community program called Space Radar was canceled due to concerns about its cost and complexity, as well as questions over who would control the system. Since then, the government has been pondering its strategy for acquiring radar satellite data. The Air Force has solicited information from industry several times on potential commercial sources of radar imagery but has not started an acquisition.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), meanwhile, in August initiated a program to buy radar satellite data. Proposals from industry were due in September, and the agency plans to issue contracts worth up to $85 million apiece to as many as four companies to provide radar imagery over five years.

Northrop Grumman is preparing itself for any potential future government acquisition, but will not build and launch a satellite without a firm government commitment, said Jeff Sneller, the company’s Trinidad program manager. The government could work out a deal with Northrop Grumman to get the satellite built and launched for “a small fraction” of what it invested to develop satellites under NGA’s NextView optical-imagery purchasing program, Sneller said.

For the NextView program, the NGA invested about $500 million up front in the construction and launch of two electro-optical imagery satellites operated by GeoEye of Dulles, Va., and DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo. The government also agreed to buy a minimum quantity of data collected by the satellites over a multiyear period.

“We have given estimates to a wide variety of U.S. government agencies for the cost of both a first Trinidad system as well as a larger constellation of capability,” Sneller said. “We have a fixed price agreement for delivery from Israel Aerospace Industries for components of the Trinidad system to us, but we have not made public any specific price of a system.

“There are changes to the basic TecSAR design to accommodate the U.S. government needs.”

Israel Aerospace Industries of Lod, Israel, built the TecSAR platform and has an agreement with Northrop Grumman to market the technology to the U.S. government.

Enabling U.S. firms to sell 1-meter radar imagery is a good first step toward leveling the playing field with international competitors, but the long-term outlook for Northrop Grumman and others eyeing the commercial radar satellite business is unknown, said Dennis Jones, president the Jones Consulting Group.

“The other [international] guys have a couple years’ head start on them,” Jones said. “They have global distribution networks and will be competing for the NGA’s radar data contract in a way that Northrop Grumman can’t compete today in the sense of being a data provider.”