The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) no longer intends to admire the potential of commercial small satellites, and is moving forward with plans to harness the next generation of commercial remote sensing.
USGIF and NGA co-hosted a Small Satellite Workshop Nov. 16-17 at NGA Campus East in Springfield, Va., as part of 2015 GEOINT Community Week. USGIF’s SmallSat Working Group led the planning of the workshop in collaboration with NGA. The first day was unclassified, while the second day included classified sessions, with nearly 400 and 250 participants, respectively.
NGA Director Robert Cardillo kicked off the unclassified session with a keynote speech in which the Nov.13 terror attacks in Paris were top of mind.
“When security fails, we fail,” Cardillo said, adding, “We are tightening communications and connectivity to our oldest ally (France) as we speak.”
He then turned his attention to the topic of the workshop: “SmallSats aren’t what we’re really here to talk about.”
Rather, Cardillo said, the challenges before his agency and the Intelligence Community as a whole are how to best take advantage of new commercial potential, reduce barriers to space, and create better insights and warning. He cited “optic” or the perception of how commercial SmallSats will add value, as one of his primary objectives.
“Our value proposition going forward will still include [high] resolution, but the temporal aspect has grown exponentially,” Cardillo said, explaining that around-the-clock monitoring of the Earth has grown more important than ever.
He urged the audience to think in terms of “activity resolution,” which he described as “the sum of spatial facts as understood through time and projected into the future to create insight and understanding.”
Cardillo also said the opportunities ahead will add to the technologies and techniques NGA already leverages today, giving a nod to national technical means as well as the agency’s existing commercial partners, especially EnhancedView contract holder DigitalGlobe.
“We continue and expect to be partnered into the future,” he said of DigitalGlobe.
The director also discussed NGA’s new Commercial GEOINT Strategy, which outlines how the agency will embrace new commercial GEOINT products by March 2018 via four “lanes”: know, explore and experiment, acquire and deliver, adopt and institutionalize. (You can view the full Commercial GEOINT Strategy Roadmap on page 11 of the document.)
Cardillo said he is challenging his team to be “number agnostic” as it considers SmallSat partner companies, which have planned constellations ranging from dozens to hundreds of systems.
“The success of the strategy won’t be because we reached 64 SmallSats,” he said of a hypothetical acquisition number. “It will because we reached new understanding and insight.”
Cardillo added he anticipates the agency will do little acquiring of SmallSats and instead mostly partner with SmallSat providers.
Investing in Innovation
Chirag Parikh, director of space policy with the White House National Security Council, gave another keynote following Cardillo. Parikh commended NGA for embracing the potential of commercial space products, which he said ultimately improve national security and economic prosperity.
Parikh declared innovative technology paired with investment equals inevitability.
“I’m so happy to hear NGA is investing fiscally and culturally in this,” he said.
Parikh compared the advent of commercial GEOINT to the Clinton administration’s decision to remove selective availability from GPS.
“People warned adversaries would use [GPS]—and they did—but look what it did for culture,” Parikh said.
He added that venture capitalists in new space have been looking for government commitment to commercial products, and cited NGA’s Commercial GEOINT Strategy as a concrete commitment that will influence investment.
Parikh wrapped up his speech by announcing his plans to leave The White House in the near future to join NGA and lead its Source Strategy Office.
Resiliency & Launch
While innovation plus investment may lead to inevitability, Parikh and several other experts also described the threat to space systems as inevitable.
“You don’t see the Navy making the case for why it needs to protect an aircraft carrier,” Parikh said. “The same approach is needed for space.”
SmallSats inherently provide resiliency because it is much more difficult for an adversary to take out hundreds of satellites as opposed to one large satellite, in addition to the fact that SmallSats are relatively quick and inexpensive to replace.
However, the next generation of commercial remote sensing will not make it into space without next generation launch systems, according to experts on a morning panel titled “The Burning Platform.”
Tom Webber, director of the Space and Strategic Systems Directorate for the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, said timely, affordable access to satellite launches is still inadequate.
“The timelines, even if you can afford the launch, are completely unacceptable for the tactical Army mission,” Webber said, noting the unrealistic 18-month wait times and $50 million price tags.
Maj. Gen. Roger W. Teague, director of space programs with the Air Force Office of the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, said the persistence provided by SmallSats offers value across mission areas and the U.S. is working aggressively to reduce reliance on Russia for satellite launches.
Robbie Schingler, co-founder of Planet Labs, which has 101 satellites on orbit and aims to bring that total to 200 in the next 18 months, said launch is a global problem that hasn’t been solved anywhere—except for perhaps China.
“We should think more strategically and allocate resources to create commercial launch capabilities in the U.S.,” Schingler said.
Jason Andrews, CEO of Spaceflight, said his company “works to put everyone on everyone else’s launch vehicle.”
“By making satellites smaller you make the price of launch smaller,” Andrews said.
However, Andrews said, the community needs small, dedicated launch vehicles, and there are a lot of people working toward providing that capability.
Dealing with Debris
Rep. Jim Bridenstine, member of the House Armed Services Committee and the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, gave an afternoon keynote, with a simultaneously hopeful yet sobering message. According to Bridenstine, access to launch isn’t the only barrier to space with which experts should be concerned.
Bridenstine said recent advancements in space are positive and will make the world a better place, but warned: “The future generation needs to be able to benefit from capabilities in low Earth orbit.”
He pointed to the Kessler Syndrome, a theory developed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in the late ’70s that debris is being created in low Earth orbit from collisions much faster than it is being removed by the atmosphere and gravity.
“The DoD doesn’t want to be the FAA for space,” Bridenstine said repeatedly. “… The DoD needs to focus on fighting and winning in space instead of trying to determine if a piece of orbital debris is going to hit the International Space Station on a particular morning.”
Bridenstine said although he is a Republican typically in favor of less government regulation, he considers this situation an exception, recommending regulation to address the growing problem of orbital debris.
“If we do nothing we will regulate ourselves out of being able to use certain orbital regimes,” he said.
The Congressman elaborated, saying that continuing to do nothing might also bring about regulation requiring satellites to be hardened, making them heavier and therefore more expensive to launch.
Bridenstine called for solutions to three problems: space debris mitigation, debris remediation (the most expensive of the three), and space situational awareness and traffic management.
When asked who he thought should be “the FAA for space,” Bridenstine declared, “the FAA.”
“We need unambiguous authority, for example, to tell a satellite to move to avoid collision,” he said.
Bridenstine concluded: “There has to be a level of government oversight or if left to our own devices nobody has access to space.”
Next Generation Analysis
While policy makers struggle to address concerns over launch and debris, next generation commercial remote sensing companies continue to charge ahead. And that means analytics will have to keep pace with the increasing amount of data coming down from space, said John Fenwick, Skybox Imaging operations manager for Google, during an afternoon panel.
Fenwick said for many reasons the number of analysts won’t grow alongside the amount of data, making automated feature detection more necessary to allow analysts to focus on the most challenging problems.
In another afternoon panel, Gary Dunow, NGA director of analysis, said more data would facilitate activity-based intelligence, predictive analytics and forecasting, and even competitive and opportunity analysis—the ability to test theories on data to support policy makers in ways not yet available. Dunow also cited “analysis-as-a-service” as a potential boon for SmallSat companies.
John Googlasian, director of source at NGA, said analysis-as-a-service would augment, not substitute analysis being conducted today.
“We want to ensure we retain core knowledge and that people understand what the machines are doing, how to develop algorithms,” Goolgasian said.
He also said the agency would soon release the first in a series of four Broad Agency Announcements to precede an RFP in summer 2016, all of which are to help the agency implement new solutions and bring next generation capabilities to bear.
According to Goolgasian, the agency will seek to ensure it has access to three things: high-resolution commercial imagery, high-revisit commercial imagery, and high sensor diversity. He added NGA would be looking for unique contracting ideas and to all types of data and sensors, not just imagery. Goolgasian also said mission success would be achieved “when his people can create foundational GEOINT products faster.”
John Charles, NGA’s national geospatial-intelligence officer for commercial imagery, closed the unclassified portion of the workshop. Charles led the development of the agency’s new Commercial GEOINT Strategy and said he has “knocked on the doors” of 20 companies doing commercial remote sensing and analysis since taking his position 18 months ago.
“It’s exciting to see innovation and risk-taking from both commercial and folks in government,” Charles said.