Susan M. Gordon, deputy director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, in July 19 testimony to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: The purchase of imagery from small-satellite constellations is key to meeting temporal resolution requirements. But revisit speed must be weighed against data reliability and availability. Credit: U.S. Senate video screenshot.

PARIS — The incoming U.S. deputy director of national intelligence on July 19 said she would push for greater use of commercial satellite imagery from small-satellite constellations for intelligence purposes but cautioned that quicker revisit time is not a panacea.

Susan M. Gordon, who has been nominated to be the principal deputy director in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is currently deputy director of the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which purchases geospatial imagery for the U.S. government.

Gordon has been among those at NGA who have pushed the agency in the direction of complementing its large purchases from DigitalGlobe’s higher-resolution satellites with lower-resolution imagery from commercial providers like Planet.

“As great as our intelligence-collection capabilities are — and they are stunning, eye-watering, and deliver great security to this nation — you cannot stand still,” Gordon said during U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearings to confirm her appointment.

Gordon said he remained “excited about what’s happening in the private sector and the opportunity that affords us not only to provide additive capability but to imagine how to do things differently.”

A second NGA contract with Planet

“You will have my commitment to continue to push that, even as we recognize that the confidence, availability and reliability of the data that those things collect is always something that we will have to balance with the speed with which we might pursue things.” DigitalGlobe officials have said they are unconcerned about the arrival of Planet and other smallsat constellations into the NGA business because these companies’ assets cannot replace the core geospatial capacity required by NGA.

On the same day as Gordon’s testimony, the NGA announced it had signed a second contract with Planet, valued at $14 million for one year, for imagery over 25 specific regions including the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.

“Planet has continued to mature their capability to where they can now offer weekly global coverage,” John Charles, NGA’s senior GEOINT authority for commercial imagery, said in a statement. “NGA and our many customers have been learning how to use it across our varied mission sets in numerous locations so we truly understand where we get the bang for the buck. Those lessons learned are reflected in the structure of this new contract.”

NGA in 2016 had signed its first contract with Planet, for $20 million, covering seven months of imagery in a test program called Planet Feed Pilot.

The contract also gives NGA access to Planet’s imagery archive. Michael Applegate, NGA’s program manager for the Planet contract, said he company’s “persistent coverage” has been valuable to NGA in “determining activity trends in ports, military garrisons and road networks.”

The Planet work pales when compared to the NGA’s multibillion-dollar, 10-year EnhancedView contract with DigitalGlobe.

In written responses to the committee’s questions, Gordon drove home her belief in using commercial sources more frequently, and said the growth of the commercial market itself is bringing advantages to the government.

‘All current major space acquisitions are on schedule, within cost’

“The explosive growth of the commercial market as it relates to computing power, processing speed and data collection is driving the government away from government-specific solutions, and it should,” Gordon said.

“We are able to compete among multiple prime vendors and are not bound to sole-source contracts. Competition and the industrial base must be key considerations as we develop acquisition strategies….

“As just one example, recent growth of the commercial space industry has improved the industrial base as some companies are no longer reliant on the U.S. government as the sole or major source of revenue.”

In a comment that likely would spark debate at the U.S. Air Force, Gordon said she had no concerns about the adequacy of the U.S. space industrial base:

“We have witnessed this through our recent success in major systems acquisitions,” Gordon said. “All of our current major space acquisitions are executing within cost and on schedule.”

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Peter B. de Selding
Peter B. de Selding
Peter de Selding is a Co-Founder and editor for SpaceIntelReport.com. He started SpaceIntelReport in 2017 after 26 years as the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews where he covered the commercial satellite, launch and the international space businesses. He is widely considered the preeminent reporter in the space industry and is a must read for space executives. Follow Peter @pbdes