In January, the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) hosted a leadership dinner where U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) director Robert Cardillo spoke about the growing Earth imaging satellite industry and its data implications.
“The skies — really space — will darken with hundreds of smallsats to be launched by Skybox, Planet Labs, BlackSky and others,” said Cardillo. “The challenges of taking advantage of that data are daunting. We cannot afford — nor need — to store it all, so will we have to go to an ‘imagery as a service’ model and buy only what we need when we need it? This will be less about the images and more about the derived information or analytics.”
Cardillo said that the NGA will need to change how and when it buys satellite imagery to reflect the industry’s rapid growth. He also noted that NGA must address questions raised by the number of small satellites planning to launch in the near future. The agency is responsible for setting requirements for national security imaging satellites as well as processing and distributing the data they collect. NGA also procures and distributes commercial satellite imagery for military and intelligence customers.
DigitalGlobe is the NGA’s main commercial imagery provider and operates five imaging satellites. The Longmont, Colo.-based company has a satellite capable of resolving ground objects as small as 0.31 meters in diameter. Newer entrants to the marketplace, such as Skybox, are not able to provide the same level of imagery quality and, instead, focus on frequent revisit times via larger constellations and new capabilities such as full-motion video.
According to Cardillo, the NGA needs to understand the implications of these new constellations both for America and its adversaries. “What questions can we answer with daily coverage of the planet?” he said. “What choices will our adversaries make with daily coverage of the planet? How will we maintain decision advantage in such a playing field?”
Like the military space community, the geospatial intelligence community is studying how small satellites can implement space-based capabilities. The U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the industry, assembled a small-satellite working group in 2014. J.B. Young of Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Robert Zitz, chief systems architect at Leidos, are heading up this group, which brings together experts from academia, government and industry to study small satellite use and its numerous implications.