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NRO Director Chris Scolese says the agency’s goals for commercial space fuel

by SuperiorInvest

The US National Reconnaissance Office plans to quadruple the number of satellites in orbit over the next decade. For this they will need commercial space companies.

The spy agency’s success toward this goal will involve “combining our partnerships with industry, advancing technology, and simultaneously reducing the cost of all of these [launch and satellite] systems,” said NRO director Chris Scolese, va a rare interview for CNBC’s “Manifest Space” podcast.

“It’s helped us improve our reliability so we can achieve more with more capacity at a lower cost,” he said.

The ambitious game plan speaks to the growing role of commercial space companies in national security work.

As startups proliferate and technology advances, government agencies are trying to cut red tape around government contracts and are getting more creative in the ways they work with industry. NRO is no exception.

Watch and listen to CNBC “Manifest Space” Podcast.hosted by Morgan Brennan, wherever you get your podcasts.

“It’s much, much cheaper to get into space, and the result is more commodity spacecraft, if you will, that we can buy off the production line, which has really brought the cost down,” Scolese said. “Then when you couple those with the sensors that are needed to get the information, you can really go out and extend your architecture in a very affordable way.”

The secret agency provides U.S. space intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and gathers information to be provided to policymakers, analysts, warfighters, and even individuals who respond to natural disasters.

It is a secret agency with a classified budget within the Department of Defense. It is partially staffed by CIA agents and is one of 18 intelligence agencies in the country.

In layman’s terms, the NRO operates America’s vast network of spy satellites.

Scolese said that for specialized or unique capabilities, the traditional method of issuing a RFP and starting a competitive bidding and development process is still best.

But if there is a relevant spacecraft or sensor already in development or commercially produced, it may make more sense to simply purchase that off-the-shelf hardware.

Similarly, with some companies already taking images or running radar programs, the NRO can “buy data from them … so we don’t have to … go out and duplicate activities that we can reliably get from industry,” he said.

Example: Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) Framework Strategic Commercial Enhancement, a program that enables the evaluation and acquisition of new and emerging sensor technologies. BAA is used to acquire electro-optical imagery, synthetic aperture radar data, and radio frequency sensing data, with startups including Planet, BlackSky, Spire Global and others winning various awards over the past few years.

From satellite images of Russia pre-building forces on the Ukrainian border invasion in 2022With data collected and published by companies like Planet about a Chinese balloon that flew over the continental US in February, commercial players are increasingly proving their mettle.

“[It’s] bringing the two sets of capabilities together,” Scolese said. “Then when you bring in our international partners as well, you really get a multiplier that allows you to do more and do it more efficiently like we do. with our partners.”

Starting Wednesday, the agency will host a technical forum that will further engage executives from the more than 100 companies expected to attend. It is hoped that new ideas emerging in the private sector or academia could be applied to the evolving operations of NGOs.

Scolese said the agency is also looking to advance new technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, even quantum sensing and communications.

As space becomes a more contested domain, NRO, much like the US Space Force, focuses on securing assets, including implementing a “more extended architecture” of more satellites in more orbits, making it harder for adversaries or bad actors to damage critical space infrastructure.

The NRO works closely with the US Space Command and the Space Force. For example, the agency and Space Force are working together to develop a highly classified new space situational constellation called SilentBarker, whose first satellite is expected to launch this summer.

Hosted by CNBC’s Morgan Brennan, “Manifest Space” focuses on the billionaires and brains behind the ever-expanding opportunities beyond our atmosphere. Brennan interviews mega-tycoons, industry leaders and startups in today’s satellite, space and defense industries. in”Manifest Space,” sit back, relax and get ready to go.

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