The National Reconnaissance Office has been providing overhead imagery from space for 60 years. It builds, acquires, launches and operates the satellites that not only see what’s going on — but hear what’s going on. At Thursday morning’s keynote address, NRO Director Christopher Scolese discussed the recent congestion and competition in space and the advantages our country holds.
“Space remains an amazing domain with unlimited potential,” Scolese said. “It used to be an environment that was dominated by just a few governments. Today, it’s a vibrant area with a combination of commercial and government organizations. This scenario has opened up new avenues of cooperation and allowed us to pursue new capabilities.”
Although the combination of organizations, collaboration and advancements is exciting, Scolese said it has created congestion that will have to be addressed and navigated going forward.
“Most concerning is the fact that space has become competitive — so competitive that we find ourselves having to protect our assets,” Scolese said. “Other nations are trying to deliver capabilities to deny our ability to operate in space. As a result, we no longer have the luxury of treating our advantage in space as a given. That’s why the U.S. and other nations have partnered together.”
Scolese highlighted two areas that give the U.S. and its allies an advantage if we stay focused and aggressive: Innovation and Commercial Capabilities.
In terms of innovation, the NRO has been “developing new technologies utilizing new techniques — and then combining those techniques and technologies to develop capabilities and acquisition strategies to solve the most difficult ISR problems from space,” Scolese said.
One tangible example of this innovation is imaging satellites, which were originally small, space-based film cameras that dropped from the sky to be snagged mid-air. Today, imaging satellites are electrooptical systems that beam data directly to the ground in near-real time.
In terms of commercial capabilities, the NRO is integrating commercial tools, products and data streams into its architecture to increase capabilities in coverage, reduce cost and to allow it to focus on critical next-generation technologies. Commercial partner involvement continues to grow.
“The game has changed by leaps and bounds since we started in 1961,” Scolese said. “Today, data has to be delivered faster just so we can keep pace with the rapid changes around the globe. We have to innovate faster so we can stay technologically ahead of our adversaries and deliver capability faster than our competitors. To do this, we need to develop systems and architectures that are resilient to interference or attack, and we need to be more nimble.”
Scolese said the NRO is already employing techniques to enable new ways of observing that defeat denial and deception techniques, in addition to employing onboard processing and AI to deliver what’s needed directly to the front. It’s also testing and deploying satellites of all sizes to provide capability, diversity of collection and ultimately, resiliency.
“What we need from you are developments and technologies that will enable us to bring more robust capability to our users faster at a lower cost,” Scolese said.
Specifically, advances are needed in the following areas: improved algorithms for AI/ML, reduced costs for processing on the ground and in space, improved low-power computer systems for spacecraft, quantum technologies that can enable new, harder to confuse observational techniques, more reliable communication systems that are immune to disruptions, and more. In addition, Scolese emphasized the importance of a reliable and trusted supply chain, something we’ve had to do without the past nearly two years.