ST. LOUIS, Mo. — The agency in charge of developing and launching America’s spy satellites is turning to industry for new capabilities.

National Reconnaissance Office Director Christopher Scolese announced at the 2021 GEOINT conference in St. Louis Oct. 7 that the agency plans to release a new Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) Framework for Strategic Commercial Enhancements in the coming weeks, which will allow it to incorporate new commercial services faster than ever before.

“The BAA is a flexible approach to an acquisition process that will allow us to evaluate, leverage and even integrate new and emerging technologies and phenomenology like radar, hyperspectral and [radio frequency] sensing as they become available,” Scolese said. “We’re going to need all of those capabilities based on our plans for the future.”

In recent years, the NRO has been aggressive in analyzing commercial satellite capabilities, starting with the establishment of the Commercial Systems Program Office three years ago. In 2019, the agency issued several study contracts to assess the commercial services offered by various satellite companies, and Scolese noted the agency has awarded contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to commercial providers.

“Those contracts are providing about a hundred million square kilometers of commercial imagery every single week,” said Scolese.

The agency is also working on two contracts for commercial radar and RF sensing capabilities, said the director. In June, NRO issued a draft request for proposals for its next generation of electro-optical imagery contracts, and awards are expected early next year.

But Scolese pointed to the BAA as a way for the agency to move even more quickly in evaluating and acquiring new commercial services.

“We know we can go a lot faster than the traditional methods and still meet all the requirements. Now we want to go faster still,” said Scolese.

The first BAA focus area will be commercial radar.

Because synthetic aperture radar uses radar to create images, it isn’t affected by adverse lighting conditions or bad weather the way electro-optical satellite imagery is. SAR satellites can take images at any time of day or night, offering a key advantage to the intelligence community. These sensors can also provide other information, such as material properties, moisture content, precise movements and elevation.

The number of commercial satellites equipped with synthetic aperture radar has grown in recent years, and the military and intelligence agencies are keen to use the data they provide.

One SAR company, Capella Space, has already secured a number of contracts with the federal government. Both the Air Force and the Navy have issued contracts to Capella Space. The NRO issued the company a study contract in 2019 to assess its data, while the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency obtained access to its data via a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement.

Another company, PredaSAR, named retired Maj. Gen. Roger Teague, the former director of space programs for the Air Force’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, as its chief executive, highlighting its interest in securing government contracts.

The NRO plans to release multiple focus areas every year, with a goal of bringing in emerging or developing satellite capabilities.

“The breadth of this framework ensures we have access to the data and providers needed to deliver value today, assess mission utility with our mission partners, and inform the intelligence community and Department of Defense’s future needs,” said CSPO Director Pete Muend in a statement.

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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