Commercial radar imagery suppliers Capella Space, PredaSAR, Airbus U.S., Iceye U.S., and Umbra have inked agreements with the National Reconnaissance Office, which was announced on January 20. These are study deals that provide the NRO entry to data acquired by these companies’ SAR (synthetic aperture radar) satellites, with the goal of helping the agency understand better the reliability of commercially available imagery.
“We know that customers across the national framework for geospatial intelligence are ready to investigate commercial radar,” NRO Director Chris Scolese stated in a statement. “These contracts will allow us to quickly test capabilities and the advantages to the national mission.”
Scolese revealed in October that the agency has begun a new initiative called Strategic Commercial Enhancements Broad Agency Announcement, which aims to create relationships with commercial remote-sensing satellite companies. The NRO has been buying optical satellite imagery from the commercial sources for years, but it is still new when it comes to the commercial SAR sector.
During a conference call with various reporters, Pete Muend, who is the current director in charge of the NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office, stated the BAA drew a huge number of bidders, yet he couldn’t explain the source selection procedure or even the value of those deals awarded to the 5 winners.
Previously, only government satellites collected SAR imagery, however, the commercial market has gained traction in recent years. Several new space companies have launched constellations of small satellites which collect images of locations on Earth numerous times a day, even in the face of clouds and bad weather. Agriculture, infrastructure, energy, finance, and other industries are among SAR’s clients. SAR is used by the US military to identify targets and monitor activity on the ground.
The NRO will collaborate with foreign corporations based in the United States.
The five agreements, according to Muend, are for at least 6 months but can be extended up to 30 months. Two of the contracts, to Iceye and Airbus, were given to U.S. affiliates of foreign-owned corporations, which was a first for NRO, which normally only deals with domestic contractors. “This illustrates our commitment to provide our customers with the greatest capabilities available in the worldwide remote sensing sector,” he said.
The NRO will evaluate the companies’ SAR data and cybersecurity capacities as part of the research contracts. According to Muend, the agency has not yet committed to any long-term buying arrangements. “It’s our job to help people comprehend the market.”
Capella Space is the first commercial SAR operator in the United States, with a network of seven satellites. The business and the NRO struck an agreement in 2019 to investigate the incorporation of SAR imagery into the NRO’s national ground architecture.
The earlier study contract, according to Muend, was “mainly centered on our architecture interaction and the steps required to incorporate commercial radar products into it,” but the new agreements will evaluate suppliers’ commercial radar capabilities.
Airbus maintains a three-satellite SAR constellation. With 16 commercial SAR satellites launched to date, Iceye U.S., an affiliate of Finnish SAR satellite provider, has the biggest fleet of the commercial SAR satellites. PredaSAR, a Terran Orbital-owned firm, plans to launch its first satellite in the 4th quarter of 2022. Umbra has launched two SAR microsatellites so far.