The one-year, $14 million contract follows a seven-month, $20 million pilot contract that began in September to assess ways San Francisco-based Planet’s “persistence and global coverage capabilities could most effectively support the NGA mission,” according to a July 19 agency statement.
NGA said none of the other companies it considered could offer an imagery subscription service with a high enough revisit rate on a global basis. NGA said the agency requires the ability to monitor changes across large geographic areas for humanitarian and intelligence missions.
“Monitoring sources that collect imagery at medium resolution (3-7 meters) at a cadence of weekly or better can satisfy the requirements of making assessments of certain [redacted] intelligence problems, including food security forecasting, [redacted] installation or infrastructure development, military preparedness [redacted] economic forecasting by measuring inventories, and other observations that can be made from analyzing changes over time. In addition, medium resolution monitoring sources improves NGA’s ability to maintain current shoreline data and assess whether foundation products require updating,” the agency said in an unclassified document released July 20.
Planet’s constellation of remote-sensing cubesats, called Doves, is currently the largest constellation in orbit. The NGA document described the constellation as 160 satellites with 120 active, but Planet spokesperson Trevor Hammond told SpaceNews July 20 that the operator’s current fleet numbers 190 satellites, 142 of which are actively imaging; the remaining 48 are still being integrated into the fleet after launching on a Soyuz rocket last week. Dove cubesats have an average resolution of 3.7 meters. The Planet fleet also includes seven larger SkySat satellites from its acquisition of Terra Bella and five RapidEye satellites from BlackBridge.
Planet has 23 operational ground stations to communicate with its constellation and receive collected imagery. A ground station completed in northern Canada earlier this year is facing protracted licensing delays, prompting the company to look elsewhere for other sites while awaiting an outcome.
Of Planet’s competitors for the NGA contract, only Vancouver-based UrtheCast is a satellite operator, and the company’s first UrtheDaily satellites won’t be in orbit until early 2019. The company currently leverages cameras on the International Space Station and two free-flyers gained through the acquisition of Elecnor Deimos in 2015.
NGA said that Orbital Insight, not being a satellite operator, was inherently “incapable of satisfying the requirement.” Hanover, Maryland-based Sky Hawk Drone Services provides imagery only for domestic monitoring activities, the agency said.
NGA said the second Planet contract gives the Defense Department and the Intelligence Community imagery from 25 regions of interest that include the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas.
“Our second contract with Planet demonstrates NGA’s continued pursuit of commercial [geospatial intelligence] GEOINT where it has demonstrated mission utility,” John Charles, NGA’s senior GEOINT authority for commercial imagery, said in a July 19 statement. “At the same time that Planet has continued to mature their capability to where they can now offer weekly global coverage, 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 our buck. Those lessons learned are reflected in the structure of this new contract.”
NGA’s mainstay imagery and geospatial solutions provider DigitalGlobe said at the time of the first Planet NGA contract that it had expected the agency to experiment with new small satellite resources.
“We see no impact whatsoever on our relationship with the NGA,” DigitalGlobe Chief Executive Jeffrey Tarr said in October. “Very different use case: We’re foundational and part of the core [NGA] mission.”
Nonetheless, DigitalGlobe is investing in small satellites of its own. Through a joint venture with Saudi Arabia-based Taqnia Space and the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), DigitalGlobe is building a constellation of least six small satellites called Scout, with sub-meter resolution imaging capabilities for launch in 2019. The company is also planning a constellation called WorldView Legion starting in 2020 for which it has given few details other than saying it will reach revisit rates of up to 40 times a day. WorldView Legion replaces the WorldView-1, WorldView-2, and GeoEye-1 satellites, and will double the company’s 30-centimeter and multispectral imaging capacity. Space Systems Loral, a satellite manufacturing subsidiary of MDA Corp., which is buying DigitalGlobe, is building those satellites.
In the July 20 document, NGA said it expects more imagery providers like Planet to launch remote-sensing constellations over the next five years. The agency will reassess its commercial options as these new entrants come online “before entering subsequent acquisitions.”