NRO awards major satellite contracts to BlackSky, Maxar, and Planet

Capitalism in space: The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) today announced major satellite contracts worth billions of dollars with three different commercial satellite constellations, BlackSky, Maxar, and Planet, to provide it high resolution reconnaissance imagery over the next decade.

You can also read BlackSky’s press release of the contract award here.

The contracts are part of an NRO’s program, dubbed Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL), to shift from building its own reconnaissance satellites to buying the services from the private sector.

EOCL will support the mission needs of NRO’s half-million intelligence, defense, and federal civil agency users over the next decade. It will also help ensure long-term, continued support for the U.S. commercial remote sensing industry. EOCL is effective as of of May 22, 2022 with a five-year base and multiple one-year options with additional growth through 2032.

The five year contract with one year options through 2032 applies to all three satellite companies, and guarantees that all three will require extensive launch capabilities to keep their satellite constellations operating. The rising demand for rockets, both large and small, will thus continue.

Rocket Lab launches two BlackSky Earth observation satellites

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today successfully launched two commercial BlackSky Earth observation satellites using its Electron rocket.

This was Rocket Lab’s the fourth mission for BlackSky, with each launch putting two satellites in orbit. The satellites provide high resolution imagery to commercial and government customers, imagery presently in high demand because of the Ukraine War.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

12 SpaceX
8 China
4 Russia
2 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 19 to 8 in the national rankings.

Rocket Lab successfully launches two more BlackSky Earth observation satellites

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today successfully launched from its launchpad in New Zealand two more satellite for the Earth observation company BlackSky, completing the launch only 21 days after their previous launch, tying the company’s fastest turnaround.

This was Rocket Lab’s fifth launch in 2021, which the company states will be its last this year. At the start of the year it had predicted it would complete this number, so the company has at least matched its expectations for 2021, despite governmental hold-ups in both New Zealand and Wallops Island that slowed the launch pace.

The leaders in the 2021 launch:

46 China
27 SpaceX
21 Russia
6 Europe (Arianespace)
5 Rocket Lab

China’s lead over the U.S. in the national rankings is now 46 to 44. SpaceX has a scheduled launch later tonight, so the race between the two countries should continue to tighten.

This was also the 120th successful launch in 2021, the most in a single year since 1984, and making it the ninth most active year in the history of space exploration.

SpaceX completes Starlink/BlackSky Falcon 9th launch

Capitalism in space: SpaceX tonight successfully launched 48 Starlink satellites and 2 BlackSky commercial Earth observation satellites using its Falcon 9 rocket.

This was the 27th successful launch by SpaceX, extending its record this year for the most launches in a year by any private company ever. The first stage made its ninth successful flight, landing successfully on the drone ship in the Atlantic. The fairings were new, but were expected to be recovered and reused.

The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

45 China
27 SpaceX
20 Russia
5 Europe (Arianespace)

China’s lead of the U.S. in the national rankings is now 45 to 42.

Rocket Lab to attempt quickest turnaround yet on next launch

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab announced today that its next launch of two new BlackSky Earth observation satellites is targeting December 7th, and will thus attempt quickest turnaround yet for the company between launches, 19 days.

It does not appear the company will attempt to recover the first stage of the Electron rocket on this launch. Previous announcements had said it will attempt that recovery on its first launches in ’22.

Rocket Lab successfully launches two satellites; recovers 1st stage in ocean

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab tonight successfully launched two Blacksky satellites, a launch that had been delayed for several months because of the New Zealand COVID lockdowns.

The company also recovered the first stage after it splashdowned in the ocean. A helicopter stood by to observe the stage as it came down by parachute, getting data in preparation for a later recovery attempt where the helicopter will snatch the stage in the air by its parachutes and then transport it back to land.

This was Rocket Lab’s fourth launch in 2021, which brings it back into a tie with Northrop Grumman and ULA. All three however do not make the leader board. The leaders in the 2021 launch race remain unchanged:

41 China
25 SpaceX
18 Russia
5 Europe (Arianespace)

China now leads the U.S. 41 to 39 in the national rankings.

Military satellite imagery to be obtained from competitive commercial market

Capitalism in space: The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is shifting how it gets the government’s military satellite surveillance imagery so that instead of having a long term contract with one company, multiple satellite companies will compete to provide the data.

Under this new imagery procurement, the NRO plans to buy products from multiple vendors and move beyond the current single-supplier arrangement that the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency signed more than a decade ago with DigitalGlobe, which is now Maxar Technologies. The NGA in 2017 turned over responsibilities for commercial imagery procurement to the NRO, while the NGA remains the primary buyer of commercial geospatial data analytics.

The NRO is expected to select at least three U.S. suppliers and structure the program with onramps for new providers. The agency also will require vendors to sign “end user license agreements” so imagery can be shared across government agencies without additional licensing fees.

This change illustrates how other government agencies are following NASA’s lead and shifting from controlling everything to buying the needed product from the open market. While NRO was getting imagery before from a commercial company, Maxar, depending on a single vendor limited competition and innovation while raising costs.

Buying the data from multiple companies means that NRO will get more choice for less cost.