Israel Aerospace Industries has joined with Northrop Grumman in hopes that they can sell time on a radar imaging satellite to U.S. government agencies.
Israel’s Ministry of Defense and contractor IAI developed the TecSAR satellite and is now looking to recoup some of its investment by following in the footsteps of commercial imagery and communication satellite companies that sell their services to U.S. military and intelligence agencies, said Seth Guanu, director of business development for national systems at Northrop Grumman.
Radar satellites have an advantage over spacecraft that rely on visible light to take high-resolution images because they can peer through clouds and darkness.
“They spent a fair amount of money for this satellite for their own military purposes … they have a definite interest in exporting that capability to other markets, and the U.S. is a natural potential market for them,” Guanu said.
The Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office pursued their own radar satellite program, which was cancelled last year because of technical difficulties and cost overruns. The NRO is believed to have other classified radar capabilities, but the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Air Force apparently want more, and less restrictive imagery, than the NRO spacecraft can provide.
Commercial radar satellites could be used to peer at less important, or secondary, targets when the NRO satellites are focused on more important objects. They also do not have the same secrecy restrictions, and information gleaned from them can be shared with allies and those without top-secret clearances more easily.
Synthetic aperture radar satellites are seen as a necessary complement to the nation’s fleet of electro-optical satellites, which cannot take images in the visible spectrum at night, or through clouds, dust and fog. SAR satellites can penetrate these barriers and look down into regions where overhead access is denied. Furthermore, electro-optical spacecraft must be directly over a target to take a clear photo. That happens every three days on average. If there are clouds, then users must wait for another pass. Radar-sats can direct their energy beams hundreds of miles away from the target, and from different angles, meaning they can collect data up to three times per day.
Companies from several nations have launched commercial radar imaging satellites including Canada’s Radarsat-2, Italy’s e-Geos and Germany’s TerraSAR-X.
The United Arab Emirates, through an Abu Dhabi-based holding company that is owned by the government, announced last spring that it will build four commercial low-earth orbit SAR satellites that will deploy over the Middle East.
U.S companies have lagged in the SAR satellite business because of previous restrictions on the technology imposed by U.S. export control policy.
In August, the Department of Commerce reversed that policy and granted Northrop Grumman’s space and mission systems division a license for a commercial one-meter resolution synthetic aperture radar system, which the company calls Trinidad.
The proposed system would operate in low earth orbit and pass over sites up to four times per day, a company statement said.
Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space command, said the service may need to seek commercial contracts to fill gaps in the nation’s space-based radar capabilities.
“War fighters continue to tell us that a space-based radar is a requirement for them,” he said last spring at the Space Symposium at Colorado Springs, Colo. “The question is, ‘How do we satisfy those requirements?’”
The answer will probably be a combination of government, commercial and airborne radar systems, he said.
Northrop Grumman spokesman Bob Bishop said while the company obtained the space radar license — a historic first — it has no plans to build and launch the Trinidad satellite at its own expense until there is a firm commitment from a U.S. government agency to buy its services. That has not happened yet.
Meanwhile, the Israeli-Northrop Grumman joint venture is seeking to fill this need, said Guanu. However, Israel is not interested in selling its services to any takers as the commercial satellite imagery firms do.
“They have no interest in trying to become a commercial data provider of SAR imagery,” he said.
Northrop Grumman has made the system more user friendly by developing a mobile ground station that can be set up in less than a day in theater, said Timothy Frei, vice president of advanced systems and national systems at Northrop Grumman’s space systems division.
The station includes a tracking and communication unit that can link to the satellite as it passes overhead and download radar imagery within 15 minutes of sending the spacecraft a task order, he said.
Because radar satellites gather images more frequently than electro-optical satellites, “you really get a persistent look to characterize a target for change over time,” he said.
Northrop Grumman has been taking the mobile station around to trade shows and military exercises to demonstrate the advantage of having a mobile ground station that can link to a satellite available to battlefield commanders as it passes overhead, and then process the imagery onsite.
The satellite “can afford to look at targets that are a little bit further down the food chain,” Frei said. The U.S. government can leverage the Israeli’s investment by adding a system something that is available now and low cost, he added.
“U.S. based shutter control is going to be increasingly important,” he said. U.S. agencies are not going to want to task satellites on sensitive targets and do that through the Germans or Italians, he said. Shutter control allows a government to restrict commercial imagery use during times of national crises.
So far, no long-term contracts have been signed. Northrop Grumman received a demonstration contract from U.S Southern Command to take the system to the Thunderstorm exercise in Key West, Fla., last September. Frei did not want to comment on the specifics of the exercise, but counter-drug operations is part of the Southcom mission.
Both the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security have requirements to spot and track vessels thousand of miles out to sea. Radar has a unique capability to carry out that sensing mission, Frei said.
“It’s a big ocean with small boats,” he added.