NRO director says commercial space industry helps fuel the spy satellite agency’s ambitious goals

The US National Reconnaissance Office plans to quadruple the number of satellites in orbit over the next decade. Commercial space companies will be needed to help do this.

The spy agency̵7;s success toward that goal will involve “a combination of our partnerships with industry, the advancement of technology, and the concomitant reduction of costs of all of them”. [launch and satellite] system,” NRO director Chris Scholes said in a rare interview for CNBC’s “Manifest Space” podcast.

“This has helped us improve our reliability so that we can achieve more with less cost and more efficiency,” he added.

The ambitious game plan speaks to the growing role of commercial space companies in national security work.

As startups are multiplying and leading technological advancements, government agencies are striving to reduce some of the red tape around government contracts and are getting more creative in the ways they partner with industry. . NRO is no exception.

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“It’s a lot less expensive to go into space, and as a result there’s more commodity spacecraft, if you will, that we can buy off the production line, which has really driven the cost down,” Scholes said. “Then if you marry those with the sensors that are needed to receive the information, you can really go away and expand your architecture in a very cost-effective way.”

The secret agency provides America’s space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, gathering intelligence to be provided to policy makers, analysts, war fighters and even individuals responding to natural disasters.

It is a classified office within the Department of Defense with a classified budget. It is partially staffed by CIA agents and is one of the nation’s 18 intelligence agencies.

In layman’s terms, the NRO operates America’s extensive network of spy satellites.

Scholes said that for specialized or unique capabilities, the traditional approach of issuing a request for proposal and starting a competitive bidding and development process is still best.

But if a relevant spacecraft or sensor is already under development or commercially in production, it may make more sense to buy that off-the-shelf hardware.

Similarly, some companies are already taking images or operating radar programs, the NRO “could purchase data from them … so that we … don’t have to shut down and duplicate the activities that we see from industry.” can be achieved reliably,” he said.

One example: the Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) Framework for Strategic Commercial Enhancements, a program that enables the evaluation and acquisition of new and emerging sensor technologies. BAA has been used to procure electro-optical imagery, synthetic aperture radar and radio frequency sensing data, with several awards over the years to Planet, BlackSky, Spire Global and other startups.

Russian army build-up on Ukraine border ahead of satellite images 2022 InvasionCommercial players increasingly demonstrate their might, thanks to data publicly collected and released by companies such as Planet regarding Chinese balloons crossing the continental US in February.

,[It’s] The union of the two sets of capabilities,” Scholes said. “Then if you also include our international partners, you really get a multiplication factor that allows you to do more, and do it more efficiently. allows us to do, as we do with our partners.”

Beginning Wednesday, the agency will host a technology forum to connect with executives from more than 100 companies that are expected to participate. The hope is that new ideas emerging within the private sector or academia can be applied to the emerging functions of NROs.

Scholes said the agency is looking into pursuing new technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, even quantum sensing and communications.

As space becomes a more competitive field, NRO, like the US Space Force, Focused on securing assets, including implementing a “more proliferation architecture” of more satellites in more orbits, making it more difficult for adversaries or bad actors to damage critical space infrastructure.

The NRO works closely with both the US Space Command and the Space Force. The agency and the Space Force, for example, are collaborating on the development of a highly classified new space situational awareness constellation called SilentBarker, the first satellite for which is expected to launch this summer.

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