Satellite imagery from Capella Space SAR satellite image shows armor build-up in Ukraine on Feb. 12, 2022. (Image: Capella)

SATELLITE 2024 — The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is hoping it can begin a new formal program to routinely buy commercial synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite imagery sometime within the next year or so, according to a senior official.

However, doing so will depend on the outcome of ongoing discussions with officials from other Intelligence Community agencies and Department of Defense officials to figure out the budget and scope of any new NRO program, Pete Muend, the director of NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office, said on Monday.

“Right now, across the executive branch, we’re actually in the middle of a conversation about whether or not, with commercial radar in particular, we want to formalize that into, I’ll say, a longer term program or record,” he said during a panel discussion at the Satellite 2024 Conference in Washington, D.C.

“Now, we’re still talking through exactly what the scope and scale is of that, but the intent being to really more cost effectively leverage [commercial capabilities] over the longer term. Obviously, that helps us on the government side, on the intelligence side,” but also it is meant to send a “demand signal” to industry “that we are interested in procuring this over the longer term and at an increased scale,” he added.

Muend noted that there are “obviously a lot of parts to that” decision, involving not just internal executive branch issues such as DoD and IC oversight, but also the need to obtain congressional approval of a new budget line. But, he stressed, “all parts are really interested in moving forward” even if “timelines are still being finalized.”

NRO for the past two years has been working with a handful of commercial SAR-sat companies, as well as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Space Force, to validate requirements and vendor capabilities. In 2022, it signed study contracts with multinational firm Airbus’s US arm; California startup Capella Space; Finnish firm ICEYE’s US branch; Florida startup PredaSAR; and California-based Umbra. Those initial 6-month contracts have continued to be extended.

But perhaps more significantly, those firms have been crucial in providing operational SAR data to the IC and the US military to help support Ukraine in its long-running war with Russia. In addition, several of those firms including ICEYE are now providing Kyiv directly with SAR imagery.

SAR satellites are particularly of interest to Ukraine because of their ability to “see” through clouds, rain and fog — weather conditions prevalent in the region.