NRO plans immediate and long-term acquisition of commercial satellite data

DENVER — Since Russian forces began mobilizing to invade Ukraine, commercial satellite operators have provided US intelligence agencies with extensive electro-optical data, synthetic aperture radar and radio frequency data.

BlackSky, Maxar Technologies and Planet, for example, shared “millions and millions of square kilometers of images” about Ukraine and Russia specifically, Peter Muend, director of the Office of the Commercial Systems Program at the National Reconnaissance Office, said on 25 April at the GEOINT Symposium.

Muend also cited Capella Space for providing extensive SAR data and HawkEye 360 ​​for providing RF data to US government agencies. These agencies, in turn, are sharing images and data with US partners and allies.

Commercial satellite images and data have been featured in news reports and social media posts since Russia invaded Ukraine.

“I must say that I am very impressed and proud that the commercial providers in many cases that we have as our partners are leading the way in ensuring that the world is becoming more transparent, especially in light of the actions taking place in Ukraine,” said Muend.

The war is taking place at a tipping point for commercial Earth observation. Dozens of companies in the United States and around the world are building constellations of dozens or hundreds of satellites equipped with sensors to reveal what is happening on the ground.

Recognizing the value of these datasets, the NRO has issued contracts to satisfy immediate needs while carrying out the formal requirements development process for long-term registry programs to bring commercial capabilities into an integrated architecture that includes classified US government systems.

Crisis Clause

To track activity in and around Ukraine, the NRO “added scope and value to many” commercial data contracts, Muend said. In many cases, the agency “added or exercised a crisis clause to allow for greater 24-by-7 response capability,” he added.

In addition, the NRO worked closely with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and combat commands “to facilitate access and rapid dissemination of commercial imagery, RF data and certainly also SAR data,” Muend said.

Images and data were shared with a wide variety of NRO partners through the NGA’s Global Enhanced GEOINT Delivery System, which has evolved to include SAR data.

“We are sending some of our commercial radar data that we are purchasing through this same platform and this is having a dramatic effect on the partners and allies that we are sending the data to,” Muend said.

Recording Programs

The NRO is in the process of establishing a commercial satellite imagery logging program called the Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL).

“EOCL is underpinned by validated requirements,” said Muend. “The community has formally stood up and said these are our long-term requirements.”

With the requirements in place, the NRO is seeking funding for the new registration program.

“The budget reflects the requirements and those two, of course, need to align,” Muend said.

The NRO plans to follow a similar process for SAR. After issuing a broad agency announcement to research commercial capabilities, the NRO awarded contracts in January to Airbus US, Capella, Iceye US, PredaSAR and Umbra. Through the contracts, the NRO is evaluating the various commercial capabilities.

Informed by our study contracts, the NRO is gaining “a good understanding of where the market is going” and is also working with the NGA and the intelligence community to “think what commercial-grade radar needs we will have in the future and how they will are going to intersect with what we are providing on the national side,” said Muend.

RF monitoring is the next feature that the NRO intends to explore in depth.

For commercial RF monitoring, the NRO will assess in-orbit resources as well as modeling and simulation data for planned constellations. It’s all part of the intelligence community’s effort to determine “how commercial RF will work in this larger next generation.” [signals intelligence] aerial architecture,” said Muend.

The NRO is also eager to explore commercial hyperspectral data.

“We have contracts with at least one hyperspectral provider now and we are eager to move forward,” said Muend.

HyspecIQ won a 2019 NRO study contract that the agency extended until September 30, 2022.

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