JUST IN: National Reconnaissance Office Embracing Commercial Tech

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

SpaceX photo

The National Reconnaissance Office — which is tasked with collecting and distributing imagery and other intelligence data to federal agencies such as the Pentagon — is investing in new commercial technology as threats around the globe increase, said the head of the organization July 20.

The NRO currently has a diversified space architecture made up of government and commercial satellites as well as large and small constellations across multiple orbits, said Director Christopher Scolese.

“Commercial systems are a part of our current architecture and are [expected to be] a more important part of our future architecture,” he said during an online meeting hosted by the Washington Space Business Roundtable. “They're providing capabilities that in some cases replace capabilities that the NRO has traditionally" provided.

Commercial partners now provide imagery as a service, which allows the NRO to focus on other tasks, he noted. “In some cases, we can buy entire systems and adapt or adopt them for our own purposes.”

Commercial offerings such as launch services, spacecraft and cloud computing have allowed the spy agency to move faster while also reducing costs, Scolese said.

Other areas where commercial technology is maturing include electro-optical systems, radars and radio frequency systems, he added.

The Space Force's Space and Missile Systems Center — in partnership with the NRO — is managing the National Security Space Launch program, which enables the acquisition of launch services aimed at ensuring continued access to space for critical missions.


Through the program, the Space Force has assigned seven national security space launches to United Launch Alliance — a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing — and SpaceX under phase 2 procurement contracts.

“It's a very, very burgeoning market,” Scolese said.

While the NRO is known for its ability to rapidly acquire new capabilities, it must move faster, he said.

“The environment is changing very quickly,” he said. “The U.S. is locked in a [great] power competition in a very strategic environment — space — where an incredible amount of time and resources are being expended and [adversaries are] trying to threaten or challenge our operational advantage.”

U.S. competitors Russia and China are both investing heavily in more powerful counter-space weapons, Scolese said.

“We know why they're engaged in this competition,” he said. “A commanding position in space is critical to their economic, diplomatic and military" ambitions.

The NRO will be key to the United States maintaining its upper hand in space through its access to “unrivaled situational awareness and intelligence to the best imagery and signals data on the planet,” Scolese said.

However, the organization must accelerate and improve how it innovates and delivers capabilities, he added.

“There's no one-size-fits-all approach to counter the threats we're facing,” he said. “We're making architectural changes to improve resiliency, increase capacity and capabilities, and ensure the delivery of NRO mission-essential functions.”

Efforts such as the office's annual “director’s innovation initiative” are one way to improve, he said. Under the program, officials actively seek out new suppliers that can produce cutting edge technologies with high-payoff concepts across a spectrum of capabilities.

“This approach has already given us opportunities to explore applications for artificial intelligence, machine learning, experiment with prototypes, and develop diverse and more efficient ways of distributing data,” Scolese said.

The NRO is currently seeking proposals from government, industry and academia for classified or unclassified low-maturity technology that could eventually be used for overhead systems, according to a news release. Applicants could receive up to $500,000 in funding.

The initiative has six areas of interest, including remote sensing, apertures, communications, systems design, "sensemaking" and other disruptive concepts, according to the NRO. Applications are open until Aug. 11.

Meanwhile, managing the deluge of data that passes through the spy agency's network is a top priority, Scolese said. Today the office has a ground architecture that can support large volumes of data that flow down from satellites. But the organization is leveraging new advances such as commercial cloud services to better store and access data, Scolese said. “We're taking advantage of many, many different applications."

The NRO also wants to accelerate the delivery of information to analysts, policymakers and warfighters, he added. It is using artificial intelligence and machine learning “to allow us to condense the data to what is needed so that we can ... reduce the volume and move it faster to the user, and therefore achieve lower latency and greater efficiency,” he said.

— Additional reporting by Mandy Mayfield

Topics: Space

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