NRO’s strategy to buy satellite imagery shaped by thriving commercial market

The U.S. satellite imagery industry will soon see the details of a highly anticipated procurement by the National Reconnaissance Office.

The NRO is the U.S. intelligence agency responsible for developing, launching and operating the nation’s spy satellites. It is also the primary acquirer of commercial imagery for the federal government.

Maxar’s WorldView Legion satellites. Credit: Maxar
The agency in the coming months is expected to launch the Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL) program, an open competition for satellite imagery products.

The NRO in June issued a draft solicitation for the EOCL procurement. A final request for proposals is being reviewed by the Defense Department and the U.S. intelligence community, and should be released before the end of the year, an NRO spokesman told SpaceNews.

Under this new imagery procurement, the NRO plans to buy products from multiple vendors and move beyond the current single-supplier arrangement that the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency signed more than a decade ago with DigitalGlobe, which is now Maxar Technologies. The NGA in 2017 turned over responsibilities for commercial imagery procurement to the NRO, while the NGA remains the primary buyer of commercial geospatial data analytics.

The NRO is expected to select at least three U.S. suppliers and structure the program with onramps for new providers. The agency also will require vendors to sign “end user license agreements” so imagery can be shared across government agencies without additional licensing fees.

“We reconfigured our next-generation commercial contracts to include pricing that incentivizes innovation and rewards the development of new capabilities,” NRO Director Christopher Scolese said Aug. 24 at the the 36th Space Symposium in Colorado.

The EOCL program is focused primarily on acquiring imagery for military users but will also obtain imagery to help domestic agencies monitor natural disasters, crop production and climate change. “Today’s commercial partners now provide imagery as a service, which allows us to focus on the difficult tasks,” said Scolese.

EOCL TO REPLACE ENHANCEDVIEW
Maxar Technologies is the NRO’s sole supplier of commercial high-resolution satellite imagery under the EnhancedView contract, a deal that dates back to 2010 when NGA selected two imagery providers — DigitalGlobe and GeoEye. By 2012, government spending cuts forced NGA to slash its imagery budget by half. EnhancedView subsequently was reduced from more than $7 billion to about $3.5 billion, which led to the merger of the two companies under DigitalGlobe.

BlackSky satellites. Credit: BlackSky
The NRO pays Maxar $300 million a year for access to the former Digital Globe’s WorldView-1, WorldView-2, WorldView-3 and GeoEye-1 satellites, as well as the company’s image archive. EnhancedView was a 10-year deal set to expire in 2020 but when the NRO took over the management of the contract, it added three one-year options worth about $300 million each. The agency so far has exercised two one-year options, extending the contract through August 2022.

A loud and clear sign that the NRO wanted to shift to a multi-vendor agreement was the 2019 award of three study contracts. One was to incumbent Maxar and the other two to smallsat constellation operators Planet and BlackSky. The contracts gave the NRO access to the companies’ business plans and finances as well as the projected capacity of their satellite constellations.

Peter Muend, director of the NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office, said the agency has invested a lot of time working with suppliers in preparation for the EOCL procurement.

“Our office was created to embrace advanced commercial sources with the underlying philosophy of buying everything that we can as an enterprise and only building those national systems when we have to,” Muend said Sept. 8 at a Defense News conference.

“It’s not just about the contracts and the imagery itself but a big part of what we do is focus on the ground enterprise and making sure that we can make maximum use of all sources, and fuse all the data in order to provide the insights that the user community needs,” said Muend.

The study contracts signed with commercial companies, he said, have helped to “lay the groundwork for a next generation of contracts that we’re really excited to be embarking on right now.”

“We reconfigured our next-generation commercial contracts to include pricing that incentivizes innovation and rewards the development of new capabilities,” NRO Director Christopher Scolese said Aug. 24 at the annual Space Symposium. Credit: Tom Kimmell Photography
REQUEST FOR BIDS LATER THAN PLANNED
Industry analyst Chris Quilty, of the market research firm Quilty Analytics, said the NRO initially planned to solicit bids for the EOCL program in 2020 but the agency needed more time to assess the capabilities of the industry, a process that was slowed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Quilty said Maxar is expected to remain the largest supplier of imagery to the U.S. government but it is almost certain that Planet and BlackSky will get some share of the EOCL contracts.

It remains to be seen, however, if the NRO will increase imagery spending beyond $300 million a year in order to fund additional vendors, Quilty said. “I fully suspect that all three companies will be awarded contracts, and I guess the question is what the aggregate value of that contract will look like.”

There is a chance that the NRO will increase its imagery budget and Maxar will continue to get $300 million “because they’re the only ones that have the advanced high-resolution imaging capability,” Quilty said.

Maxar is investing $600 million in the next-generation Worldview Legion imaging constellation, and its success will be key in continuing to serve as the U.S. government’s sole provider of the sharpest 30-centimeter imagery, he noted. The company plans to launch six Legion satellites to eventually replace aging Worldview and GeoEye spacecraft.

Just months before it was acquired and rebranded as Maxar, DigitalGlobe in 2017 announced plans to build the Legion constellation and launch the first two satellites in 2021. Raytheon Intelligence & Space was selected to build the high-resolution imaging instrument.

The first Legion launch has now slipped to 2022, Maxar CEO Dan Jablonsky said in August during an earnings call.

Tony Frazier, Maxar’s executive vice president of global field operations, said in a statement to SpaceNews that the Legion constellation will increase the company’s capacity so it can support the NRO as well as international and commercial customers.

“Legion is intended both to ensure continuity in capacity for all of our customers as well as to expand capacity, particularly in those parts of the world where there is high demand,” Frazier said. Two Legion satellites will travel in sun-synchronous orbits and four in mid-inclination orbits to concentrate capacity over high-demand regions.

“Most of the world’s population is in the mid-latitudes, and so is most of the commercial demand as a result,” Frazier said. “By having a mix of sun-synchronous and mid-inclination satellites, we will have global coverage but with capacity that is better matched to where demand is greatest.”

BlackSky constellation provided 30-day persistent monitoring of the fall of Afghanistan with Spectra AI. Credit: BlackSky
The mid-inclination satellites also are designed to improve revisit throughout the day as opposed to only imaging at a fixed time each day.

“For example, today we can image Kabul International Airport one or two times during the day,” Frazier said. “WorldView Legion will give us around a dozen looks at that location from sun-up to sun-down.”

Quilty noted that improved revisit rates are achieved by having more satellites, placing them in an inclined orbit rather than sun synchronous orbit, and designing satellites with a rapid slewing capability. He said Legion’s primary advantage is high-resolution imaging but also unique spectral bands and a high revisit rate

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