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.

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.

Successful SpaceX launch

Falcon 9 shortly after launch

Capitalism in space: SpaceX tonight successfully launched 58 Starlink satellites as well as three Planet earth observation satellites. The image to the right looks up at the exhaust from the nine firing Merlin engines of Falcon 9 rocket, about two minutes after launch.

That first stage also successfully landed, the third time this stage has completed a launch. The fairing halves were also reused.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

11 China
9 SpaceX
7 Russia
3 ULA

The U.S. now leads China 15 to 11 in the national rankings.

Smallest spherical planet so far found

Hygiea

A new image of the asteroid Hygiea has revealed that this main belt object is actually spherical, making it the smallest spherical asteroid so far discovered and suggesting that it could be defined as a planet.

The image, taken by the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, is to the right. The asteroid was first discovered in 1849 and is the fourth largest in the asteroid belt, after Ceres, Pallas, and Vesta, with a diameter of 267 miles.

The image once again challenges the definition of what makes a planet. It also makes difficult the vague term “dwarf planet.” At what point does a dwarf become a full planet? This has never been clarified, which is why I tend to avoid using the term dwarf planet.

In my many interviews of planetary scientists, they generally dismiss the IAU’s poor definition of a planet and define a planet as anything that has settled into a spherical shape. In the case of Hygiea, that seems to apply.

Russia to launch a dozen cubesats for Planet

Capitalism in space: Planet has signed a deal with the Russian government entity that bundles smallsat secondary payloads to launch a dozen cubesats on a Soyuz rocket presently scheduled to launch later this year.

This agreement provides further evidence that the cubesat commercial industry is here to stay. There are a lot of these contracts right now (India is scheduled to launch 30 tomorrow). The need for more small rockets to launch such satellites appears almost overwhelming, and thus a good financial choice.

Rocket Lab gets new launch contract

The competition heats up: Rocket Lab has signed a three launch contract with the smallsat Earth resources satellite company Planet (formerly Planet Labs).

The contract covers three dedicated launches of Dove satellites built by San Francisco-based Planet, formerly known as Planet Labs, on Electron vehicles. The companies did not announce terms of the deal, although Rocket Lab quotes a list price of $4.9 million per Electron launch on its website.

Mike Safyan, director of launch and regulatory affairs for Planet, said in an interview during the International Space Station Research and Development Conference here that the number of satellites that each launch will carry is still being determined, but will likely be between 20 and 25. Each Dove is a three-unit cubesat with a mass of about five kilograms.

If this report as well as previous ones are correct, the first Electron rocket launch will happen before the end of this year.

Alan Stern gives the IAU a piece of his mind

New Horizons’ principle investigator yesterday told the International Astronomical Union what he thinks of their definition of a planet:

“It’s bulls—,” he told Tech Insider (and said we could quote him on that).

The problem, Stern said, is that the reclassification largely stemmed from the opinions of astronomers, not planetary scientists. His beef here is that astronomers study a large variety of celestial objects and cosmic phenomena, while planetary scientists focus solely on planets, moons, and planetary systems.

“Why would you listen to an astronomer about a planet?” Stern said. He compared it to going to a podiatrist for brain surgery instead of a brain surgeon. “Even though they’re both doctors, they have different expertise,” Stern said. “You really should listen to planetary scientists that know something about this subject. When we look at an object like Pluto, we don’t know what else to call it.”

Stern’s opinion is not unique among planetary scientists. I have interviewed many, and read reports by others, which consistently say that they object strongly to the IAU’s definition. To them, if a object has enough mass to force it into a sphercial shape, it is a planet.