WASHINGTON — The National Reconnaissance Office awarded study contracts today to six commercial space companies to explore the potential of satellite radio frequency detection to meet military intelligence needs.

The NRO, charged with designing, launching and operating U.S. spy satellites, issued the Sept. 28 awards as part of a broader effort called Strategic Commercial Enhancement, which aims to better leverage commercial space capabilities alongside the bespoke systems it has traditionally developed.

While past study work focused on commercial radar technology, today’s awards are geared toward companies that provide radio frequency detection services. These satellites, which detect RF emissions from space, can be used to improve maritime domain awareness by locating ships with disabled identification systems. And in the months leading up to the war in Ukraine, the technology was used to pick up GPS interference signals across Eastern Europe that offered a glimpse into Russia’s activity in the region.

The six commercial space technology companies selected to participate in the NRO study are: Aurora Insight, Hawkeye 360, Kleos Space, PredaSAR, Spire Global and Umbra Lab. An NRO spokesman told C4ISRNET the contracts will have a six-month base period of performance, two initial options to extend the agreement by 24 months and potential opportunities to continue the work beyond that. Each company was awarded about $300,000, but funding could increase “as mission value, customer requirements and on-orbit provider capabilities are confirmed,” the spokesman said.

“Today’s awards are another great example of NRO’s efforts to innovate on all fronts as we continue to work with our partners in government to find new ways to build capacity, agility, speed and resilience into everything we do,” NRO Director Chris Scolese said in a statement.

Under the study contracts, companies will help the agency operationalize its use of commercial RF to support military users, the intelligence community and policymakers. In a statement, Hawkeye 360 said the program strengthens the NRO’s partnerships in this area “to explore the near- and long-term, high-impact capabilities commercial RF can deliver.”

Commercial radio frequency is unclassified and has been in high demand in recent years. The NRO noted it has seen a greater call for the capability across its user base since 2019, when it issued its first contracts to study RF integration.

“As evidenced by the quality and quantity of commercial data flowing to our partners and allies, commercial remote sensing is a mainstay not only for security and intelligence applications but also for helping manage humanitarian crises,” Pete Muend, director of NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office, said in a statement.

NRO released its Strategic Commercial Enhancement framework in 2021 and awarded study contracts to radar providers earlier this year.

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.

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