Tag Archive for: NRO

Rocket Lab on July 13 launched the NROL-162 mission for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office from the company’s launch complex in New Zealand.  NROL-162 is the first of two NRO missions the agency developed in partnership with the Australian Department of Defence.

NROL-162 and NROL-199 carry spy satellites built and operated jointly by the U.S. and Australia

The second one, NROL-199, is planned for July 22. Both missions are classified spy satellites that the U.S. intelligence agency developed jointly with the Australian government.

“The NRO works with allies and partners to identify and advance common goals,” said NRO Director Chris Scolese.

The payloads on NROL-162 and NROL-199 were “designed, built, and operated by the National Reconnaissance Office in partnership with the Australian Department of Defence as part of a broad range of cooperative satellite activities with Australia,” an NRO spokesperson said. 

Australia’s defense minister Peter Dutton in a speech in March announced the establishment of the Australian Space Command with a goal of expanding the country’s space activities and joint investments with the United States.

“Importantly, Australia and the United States are strengthening our alliance to support our mutual objectives in the space domain,” Dutton said. “The Australian Department of Defence and the National Reconnaissance Office have committed to a broad range of cooperative satellite activities which will expand Australia’s space knowledge and capabilities.”

The partnership with Australia is part of a broader effort by the National Reconnaissance Office to have a more integrated space architecture to support U.S. and allies’ surveillance needs. The NRO recently announced a similar partnership with the United Kingdom.

The NRO said this collaboration will deliver “meaningful contributions to the NRO’s enduring pursuit of a more capable, integrated, and resilient space architecture designed to provide global coverage in support of a wide range of intelligence mission requirements.” The NROL-162 and 199 missions are the “latest examples of NRO’s commitment to enhancing relationships with U.S. allies and partners.”

The NRO worked with New Zealand Space Agency, which licensed the launch.

For Rocket Lab, the NRO’s twin missions will be an opportunity to demonstrate its “responsive space launch” service, advertised as a “24/7 rapid call-up launch capability and streamlined satellite build and operation options.”

NROL-162 and 199 are the third and fourth missions awarded to Rocket Lab by the NRO under the Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract.  The company launched RASR-1 and RASR-2 in 2020.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) said the 10-year deals with three companies are the agency’s largest ever commercial contracting effort

The NRO called these awards the agency’s “largest-ever commercial imagery contracting effort.”

Maxar’s deal is worth more than $3.2 billion over the decade. BlackSky’s contract has options worth up to $1 billion. Planet Labs has not yet disclosed the value of its contract.

“These contracts mark a historic expansion of the NRO’s acquisition of commercial imagery to meet increasing customer demands with greater capacity,” said the agency.

The contracts have a five-year base period of performance with options to extend up to 10 years. “NRO policy prohibits public statements of contract values. However, we can say the requirements have grown since EnhancedView and the contract scope and value have also grown,” a spokesperson said.

EnhancedView was a single-vendor agreement signed with Maxar in 2010 worth about $300 million a year for access to the company’s high-resolution imagery satellites and image archive. 

The EnhancedView arrangement is now being replaced with the Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL) contract shared by three vendors.

Maxar said its EOCL contract is worth up to $3.24 billion over the decade, with a firm five-year base commitment worth $1.5 billion and options estimated at $1.74 billion.

Under EOCL, “Maxar will continue to provide high-resolution commercial satellite imagery services to the NRO for use across the U.S. defense and intelligence community,” the company said.

The new contract gives the NRO access to the company’s current WorldView and GeoEye four-satellite constellation and to six new Legion satellites that have not yet been launched.

Maxar said the EOCL contract is “flexible and allows for growth to consider additional capacity from the Legion satellites when they are operational.” There is a $40 million option in year five of Maxar’s EOCL contract, bringing the potential value for year five to $340 million. 

BlackSky said the starting value of its EOCL agreement is $85.5 million and the total contract options are worth $1 billion over the 10-year period. 

NRO market research

The three companies selected for the EOCL procurement were expected to win. The NRO for several years had signaled its intent to expand the pool of imagery providers and in November issued the final EOCL request for bids after extensive market research, including study contracts awarded in 2019 to BlackSky, Maxar and Planet. The study contracts gave the NRO access to the companies’ business plans, finances and projected capacity of their satellite constellations.

“Commercial imagery is a valuable tool for information sharing and decision making,” said Pete Muend, director of NRO’s commercial systems program office. “EOCL allows us to meet a larger number of customer requirements more quickly than ever before and dedicate national systems to the most challenging and sensitive missions.”

Under the EOCL, the NRO will purchase a variety of imagery products, including foundation data and traditional imagery, as well as shortwave infrared, nighttime, and non-Earth imaging, and direct downlink to U.S. military remote ground terminals. Under this contract the NRO also can purchase “point collection” services where the government can task a commercial satellite to collect images over a particular spot. Non-Earth imaging of objects in space is a new capability that the NRO is buying that takes advantage of commercial satellites’ space situational awareness sensors. 

“Maxar has been a trusted U.S. government partner for more than two decades, and we’re proud to continue to serve that mission under EOCL,” said Maxar’s president and CEO Dan Jablonsky. 

 Planet Labs said its contract will give the NRO access to Planet’s high and medium resolution satellite imagery. Once in orbit and operational, users will also have access to Planet’s next generation, rapid revisit Pelican fleet. The contract also makes available Planet’s archive of over 2,000 images of every point on Earth dating back to 2009.

“We have long held the conviction that unclassified commercial satellite imagery not only equips the government with differentiated and innovative intelligence capabilities, but also increases transparency and accountability that advances global security, as well as trust between government and citizens,” said Planet’s co-founder and chief strategy officer Robbie Schingler.

Planet, which became a publicly traded company in December after closing a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, operates more than 200 imaging satellites. BlackSky also went public in September via a SPAC merger.

Brian O’Toole, CEO of BlackSky, told SpaceNews that the NRO’s contract is a strong endorsement of the company’s “dynamic monitoring, high frequency imagery services. It goes beyond what was done in the past with just foundational imagery.” The company operates 14 imaging satellites.

O’Toole said $72 million of the initial $85.5 million award is for services to be provided in the first two years of the contract. “So it’s a substantial expansion from where we were and a great start for a long term program that has a pretty big upside of up to a billion dollars.”