US spy agency awards billions to commercial satellite companies
The NRO's awards to Maxar, BlackSky, and Planet demonstrate the government's reliance on commercial images.
The National Reconnaissance Office, the US intelligence agency in charge of the nation's spy satellites, announced that it will award billions of dollars in contracts to three commercial satellite businesses that capture photographs of Earth over the next decade.
In a statement, the NRO said it was the “largest-ever commercial imagery contract effort” and that it represented “a historic expansion of the NRO’s acquisition of commercial imagery to meet increasing customer demands with greater capacity than ever before.”
Planet, BlackSky, and Maxar all received "honors" for operating fleets of satellites orbiting Earth that take photos of the ground below.
The contracts come as the Pentagon and intelligence services rely more on commercial satellite imagery to aid in spying, fighting, and alleged humanitarian endeavors. Commercial satellites have filmed military movements, wreckage, and even plumes of smoke that reveal the locations of missile attacks — all in high-definition — throughout the Ukrainian war.
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The imagery is so critical that the Ukrainian government issued a request for assistance this year, requesting satellite providers to share their data with the Ukrainian military.
US government capitalizes on spy satellites
For decades, countries have utilized satellites to spy on their adversaries. However, a technological revolution, largely driven by the private sector, has reduced the size, cost, and capability of satellites. As a result, the US government has stated that it wishes to capitalize on those capabilities.
“The NRO has a long-standing strategy of ‘buy what we can, build what we must’,” Chris Scolese, director of the NRO, said in a statement. “The diversity offered by our expanding architecture composed of both commercial and NRO systems increases our resilience and enables an integrated approach to the threats facing our nation.”
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While the NRO simply stated that the contracts are "worth billions of dollars" over the next decade, BlackSky stated that its award was worth $1 billion. Maxar stated in a filing that it might be worth up to $3.24 billion.
It was unclear how much Planet would receive as part of the program, but Robbie Schingler, the firm’s co-founder and chief strategy officer, said, “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.”