NRO director Chris Scolez says commercial space contributes to agency goals

The US National Reconnaissance Agency plans to quadruple the number of satellites in orbit over the next decade. This will require commercial space companies.

The spy agency’s success in achieving this goal will involve “combining our partnerships with industry, advancing technology, and reducing the cost of all these services at the same time.” [launch and satellite] systems,” said NRO director Chris Skolez in rare interview for the CNBC “Manifest Space” podcast.

“This has helped us increase our reliability so that we can achieve more with more capabilities at less cost,” he said.

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

As start-ups proliferate and lead technological advances, government agencies are trying to reduce some of the bureaucracy associated with government contracts and become more creative in their partnerships with industry. NRO is no exception.

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“Going into space is much, much cheaper, and this has resulted in more spaceships that we can buy off the production line, which has really brought down the cost,” Skolez said. “Then if you marry someone who has the sensors needed to gather information, you can really go further and expand your architecture in a very affordable way.”

The secret agency provides space intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for the United States, collecting information to provide to politicians, analysts, the military, and even disaster responders.

This is a secret office with a secret budget in the Department of Defense. It is partly staffed by CIA agents and is one of the country’s 18 intelligence agencies.

In layman’s terms, NRO operates the vast US network of spy satellites.

For specialized or unique opportunities, Skolese said the traditional method of submitting a request for proposal and launching a competitive bidding and development process is best.

But if there is a suitable spacecraft or sensor that is already being developed or commercially produced, it may make sense to simply purchase off-the-shelf hardware.

Similarly, since some companies are already making images or using radar programs, NRO can “buy data from them…so we don’t have to…duplicate activities that we can reliably get from industry,” he said.

Example: The Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) program under the Strategic Commercial Enhancement program, which allows you to evaluate and acquire new and emerging sensor technologies. BAA has been used for electro-optical imaging, synthetic aperture radar and RF sensing data, with various startups including Planet, BlackSky, Spire Global and others winning various awards over the past few years.

From satellite imagery showing Russia building up its forces on the border with Ukraine ahead of a 2022 invasion, to data compiled and released by companies like Planet regarding a Chinese balloon that flew over the US mainland in February, commercial players are increasingly showing your courage.

“[It’s] combining two sets of capabilities,” Scolese said. “Then if you add our international partners as well, you really get a multiplier that allows you to do more and do it more efficiently, as we do. with our partners.”

Starting Wednesday, the agency will host a technical forum to further engage with executives from the more than 100 companies expected to attend. It is hoped that new ideas emerging from the private sector or academia can be applied to the evolving NRO operations.

Scolez said the agency is also looking to advance new technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, even quantum sensing and communications.

As space becomes an increasingly contentious area, the NRO, like the US Space Force, is focusing on asset protection, including implementing a “more common architecture” of more satellites in more orbits, making it harder for adversaries or attackers to operate. damage to critical space infrastructure.

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

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