Bird's-eye view of the war zone

NGA’s emphasis on unclassified imagery begins to pay off as a second commercial satellite goes operational

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) NextView program entered a new phase in February when a second Earth imaging satellite, GeoEye-1, began providing information to the agency. The development breaks a trend of poorly performing space acquisition programs.

NextView is a public/private partnership through which NGA buys imagery from two remote-sensing companies: GeoEye, of Dulles, Va., and DigitalGlobe, of Longmont, Colo. The images the companies provide to NGA are unclassified, which means they can be shared with local and state emergency management agencies for disaster relief and with coalition military partners for mission planning in Afghanistan and Iraq.

GeoEye and DigitalGlobe each built satellites and ground systems based on NGA's specifications, with the agency giving each company about $500 million — enough to cover about half the cost. The companies paid for the rest.

The first satellite — DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-1, built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. — reached full operational capability in late 2007 and has sent thousands of images to NGA’s Unclassified National Imagery Library. General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems built the GeoEye satellite that recently became operational, and ITT Corp. built the sensor used in both satellites.

The two satellites were put in orbit and their ground systems built in less than four years, making NextView a rare U.S. space acquisition program that was completed on time and on budget.

NGA has bought access to imagery rather than an ownership stake in the satellites. “We’re like an anchor tenant [at a shopping mall] and get a reduced imaging price,” said Cyndi Wright, NextView program manager at the Sensor Assimilation Division of NGA’s Acquisition Directorate. “We have a collection list that we provide them that is prioritized to our needs.”

One of the most valuable products to come out of the program is an up-to-date atlas of Baghdad, Wright said. It includes commercial images of the city on right-hand pages with the facing pages listing all the street names and buildings.

“U.S. warfighters have stated their requirement for access to readily available, high-quality, unclassified imagery and imagery-based products in a format they can easily use and disseminate,” she said. NGA is “fielding a capability that will meet and exceed those requirements. Each of the NextView-class satellites is capable of producing imagery at the rate of over 500,000 square kilometers a day, 80 percent cloud free, and with revisit rates of less than three days for each vehicle.”

For example, GeoEye-1 can collect 0.41-meter ground-resolution black-and-white images and 1.65-meter color images. The satellite’s camera can distinguish objects on the Earth’s surface that are as small as 16 inches.

GeoEye-1 uses National Imagery Transmission Format 2.1, a new standard for imagery that features improved compression. It is beneficial for users who operate with lower bandwidth and limited storage.

In addition to providing NGA with a library of easily shared images, NextView was also intended to stimulate the United States’ commercial remote-sensing industry and ensure the survival of what the government considers a vital national asset.

“At the time, several companies had satellites in orbit with one-meter ground resolution, and many of our mapping mission requirements could be satisfied with that resolution. Some could not,” Wright said. “Another directive was to keep the U.S. commercial space industry robust and to ensure we had access to images.”

The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2004 created NGA to replace the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. The agency’s mission shifted from reconnaissance to surveillance and from collecting classified imagery to gathering commercial images.

About the Author

Barry Rosenberg is editor-in-chief of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryDefense.

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