WASHINGTON – The National Reconnaissance Office has issued contracts to five synthetic aperture radar satellite operators as the intelligence agency continues to look at how these commercial capabilities can be integrated into its missions.

The five companies receiving contracts are Airbus U.S., Capella Space, ICEYE U.S., PredaSAR and Umbra. The NRO declined to reveal the value of the contracts.

“We are very pleased with the response to the first focus area under our new [broad agency announcement],” said NRO Director Chris Scolese in a statement. “We know that users across the National System for Geospatial Intelligence are eager to explore commercial radar, and these contracts will allow us to rapidly validate capabilities and the benefits to the national mission.”

Unlike traditional electro-optical imagery, synthetic aperture radar is unaffected by cloud cover, darkness or inclement weather, making it useful for a number of intelligence missions. SAR can also provide data on material properties, moisture content, elevation and precise movements.

Under the contracts, NRO users will have access to the companies’ SAR products for operational use and to assess their applicability to various use cases. The agreements do not include analytics products, which will be generated by partners like the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Director of the NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office Pete Muend noted in a media call with reporters that while the base contracts have low contract value thresholds to accommodate emerging providers, they were deliberately designed to be quickly scaled up at the agency’s discretion. The initial contracts are for a six-month period of performance, but have options to be expanded to 30 months. The NRO can then go beyond that if needed, added Muend.

Some of the companies have yet to actually launch an SAR payload into orbit. That could affect the execution of individual contracts, Muend acknowledged, since part of the work will require an actual satellite on orbit. While the bulk of the contract work is focused on modeling and simulation data, the NRO will require on orbit data to validate those models and simulation in later stages of the acquisition. The NRO also wants the option to purchase ad hoc products from vendors at some point. Products could include SAR imagery or more advanced capabilities, such as moving target indicators.

The contracts will also inform the formal requirements document needed to issue operational contracts and establish a program of record. That formal requirements process is overseen by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which has its own research agreement with one of the providers: Capella Space.

The five contracts were issued under the NRO’s new broad agency announcement, which was unveiled only three months ago at the GEOINT conference in St. Louis. The NRO designed the Strategic Commercial Enhancements BAA Framework as a tool to help it explore new commercial capabilities across a variety of different types of sensor, enabling the agency to integrate them with its missions. Commercial radar was the first focus area of the BAA, and the agency said it plans to release its next focus area later this year.

“By leveraging commercial capabilities to the maximum extent possible, we are delivering increased flexibility and capacity, greater responsiveness, and improved resiliency for our customers,” said Muend in a statement.

The NRO contracts come amid growing interest in commercially-provided synthetic aperture radar among the intelligence community and Department of Defense. The U.S. Air Force, Navy, Army and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency all currently have contracts or research agreements with commercial SAR providers.

“We work very closely with the Air Force, Army, Navy — other services and agencies,” said Muend. “We certainly do keep tabs on what the other services and agencies are doing.”

Muend declined to share examples of what his agency has learned from those other efforts.

The NRO has itself dipped its toes into commercial SAR over the last two years, issuing a study contract to Capella Space in 2019. That contract was issued as part of a series of study contract the NRO used to look at the commercial capabilities of vendors, including more traditional electro-optical imagery and emerging capabilities like remote radio-frequency sensing and hyperspectral imagery.

While the agency was able to learn from the Capella Space study contract, this new batch of contracts under the BAA will take those efforts further, Muend told C4ISRNET.

“NRO’s previous commercial radar study contract was principally focused on our architecture interface and the actions required to integrate commercial radar products into it. This effort is principally focused on the commercial radar capabilities of the providers,” he said.

Muend noted the maturity of both the commercial capabilities and government’s ability to leverage those capabilities has grown in the last couple years, enabling this new batch of contracts to continue moving the process forward.

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

More In Intel/GEOINT