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, synthetic aperture radar and radio frequency data.

BlackSky, Maxar Technologies and Planet, for example, have shared “millions and millions of square kilometers of imagery” over Ukraine and Russia, in particular, said Peter Muend, director of the commercial systems program office of the National Reconnaissance Office, April 25 during the GEOINT symposium. .

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

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

“I have to say I’m very impressed and proud that in many cases the commercial vendors we partner with are leading the charge, ensuring the world becomes more transparent, especially in light of ongoing actions in Ukraine,” Muend said.

The war is occurring at an inflection 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, NRO issued contracts to meet immediate needs, while undertaking the formal process of writing requirements for long-term registration programs to integrate business capabilities into an integrated architecture. which includes classified US government systems.

crisis clause

To track activity in and around Ukraine, NRO has “added reach and value to many” commercial data contracts, Muend said. In many cases, the agency “has added or exercised a crisis clause to allow for increased responsiveness on a 24/7 basis,” he added.

Additionally, the NRO has worked closely with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and combatant 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 NGA’s enhanced GEOINT delivery system, which has evolved to include SAR data.

“We push some of our commercial radar data that we buy through this same platform and that has a dramatic effect on the partners and allies that we push the data to,” Muend said.

Recording programs

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

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

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

“The budget reflects the demands and those two, of course, have to line up,” Muend said.

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

Informed by our study contracts, NRO gains “a good understanding of market developments” and also works with the NGA and the intelligence community to “consider what commercial-grade radar needs we are going to have in the future. and how those are going to intersect with what we provide on the national side,” Muend said.

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

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

NRO is also keen to explore commercial hyperspectral data.

“We now have contracts with at least one hyperspectral vendor and are looking forward to moving things forward,” Muend said.

HyspecIQ won an NRO study contract in 2019 which the agency has extended until September 30, 2022.

Michael J. Chiaramonte