ST. LOUIS — Maxar Technologies, which provides satellite imagery to the Defense Department and intelligence community, is considering how its Earth-facing spacecraft sensors could serve a dual-purpose in observing objects and activity in orbit.
The company is one of three firms on contract with the National Reconnaissance Office, the agency that develops and operates spy satellites, to provide imagery over the next 10 years through its Electro-Optical Commercial layer program, or EOCL.
Maxar’s contract, awarded in 2022 and valued at more than $3 billion, is largely focused on providing imagery of the Earth but it includes a provision to experiment with using its satellites to provide “non-Earth” data, which includes high-resolution imagery of the space environment.
Tony Frazier, Maxar’s executive vice president and general manager for public sector Earth intelligence, said the company is doing “a limited collection” of this type of imagery, and is discussing with the Pentagon how its satellites could be used for this mission.
“Part of what we’re doing is we’re educating them on that and making sure they’re taking full advantage of that investment, but then also making them aware of additional capabilities that we’re adding that currently aren’t supported through the program,” Frazier told C4ISRNET in a May 23 interview at the GEOINT Conference in St. Louis. “An example that has been super interesting and has kind of led to new conversations with the Department of Defense is around what we’re doing with non-Earth imaging.”
Frazier characterized Maxar’s work in this area as being in the “study and evaluation phase,” adding that it could inform future requirements. He said that while Maxar builds its satellites “with a sense of enduring missions in mind,” it also considered the possibility that they could be used in new ways, especially as the government looks to protect satellites from new threats in space.
“It’s a way that we can actually get more utility out of the constellation,” he said.
Improving domain awareness
Satellites that observe activity in orbit contribute to what DoD calls space domain awareness. The mission is a high priority for U.S. Space Command and the Space Force as they grow increasingly concerned about congestion and debris in low Earth orbit, located about 1,200 miles above the planet, and aggression from adversaries like Russia and China.
The Space Force uses a mix of ground-based and in-space sensors to conduct the space domain awareness mission. Its fleet of radars, known as the Space Surveillance Network, observe space from the ground and feed data into command and control systems that catalog space objects.
The service also has sensors in orbit that provide domain awareness and, in partnership with the National Reconnaissance Office, will launch its newest space observation satellites this summer, dubbed Silent Barker.
SPACECOM provides the data collected by those sensors to government, civil and commercial agencies.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyses satellite imagery and turns it into usable data, also coordinates with the service and SPACECOM on intelligence it receives about in-space objects and activities.
NGA Director Vice Adm. Frank Whitworth told reporters during a May 22 briefing his team is considering how it might grow those partnerships and is considering making room for more Space Force operators to serve within the agency.
“I’m really excited about where we might take the relationship,” he said. “I’ve asked the team to explore whether we have the right number of Space Force billets in our own team. And I sense that this year will be a year of definition as to our official relationship with the Space Force.”
NRO Director Chris Scolese, said during a speech at the conference that the agency is working with the Space Force to make sure the commercial satellite imagery it collects is “available as broadly as possible.”
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.