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BlackSky, Planet, Pixxel, and Others Win NRO Hyperspectral Study Contracts 

By Rachel Jewett | March 22, 2023

      Photo: National Reconnaissance Organization

      The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has awarded six companies — BlackSky Technology, HyperSat, Orbital Sidekick, Pixxel, Planet, and Xplore — study contracts for commercial hyperspectral imagery. The NRO will use these study contracts to “explore the potential of commercial hyperspectral imagery,” NRO Director Dr. Chris Scolese said in Wednesday’s announcement. 

      The contracts are a two-stage effort. The NRO said the first stage focuses on analytical studies to estimate capabilities at the individual sensor and constellation levels, as well as business and cybersecurity planning. The second stage focuses on assessing on-orbit capabilities and procuring data products.

      Hyperspectral images are made up of light from hundreds of colors across the electromagnetic spectrum and can be used for many applications including agriculture, mining, geology, and intelligence and surveillance.

      The contracts are part of the NRO’s Strategic Commercial Enhancement’s (SCE) Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) Framework, which is focused on acquiring new phenomenologies in commercial imagery and sensing data. The office previously awarded contracts under the BAA to commercial companies for synthetic aperture radar in January 2022, and radio frequency in September 2022

      It took the NRO just four months to issue the hyperspectral contracts after releasing the request for proposals in November. 

      “These contracts demonstrate our continued commitment to agile acquisition,” said Pete Muend, director of the NRO’s Commercial Systems Program Office. “Speed remains vital to take advantage of the innovation coming from industry, and to assess emerging technologies such as HSI and the potential to address intelligence challenges.”

      For hyperspectral startup Pixxel, this is its first publicly announced government customer. The company recently shared its first set of images from its hyperspectral pathfinder satellites. The company has launched three pathfinder missions and has plans for a 24-satellite constellation. 

      “The entire team here at Pixxel is excited to begin this journey with the NRO,” commented Awais Ahmed, CEO and co-founder of Pixxel. “We are fully committed to this fantastic opportunity to offer our imaging capabilities to the organization, its partners, and the U.S. geospatial intelligence community.”

      Planet said the award will allow the company to work directly with the NRO to explore how its hyperspectral capabilities align with the agency’s national space security architecture. The company is pursuing a hyperspectral constellation called Tanager, in partnership with the Carbon Mapper Coalition, to detect greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental applications. 

      “Planet is extremely honored to continue as a valued and trusted commercial provider for the NRO,” commented Jon Powers, Planet Federal’s General Manager. “This award furthers our ability to work alongside the NRO to better serve the defense and intelligence communities. It also enables the NRO to better analyze and more quickly integrate commercial capabilities into their emerging hybrid space system architecture.”

      Dr. Jeremy Banik, deputy director of Commercial Systems Program Office, spoke about the hyperspectral study contracts in November last year at CyberSatGov and said the NRO is not interested in buying just a large swath of a single discrete band such as thermal infrared imagery, but wants to buy many individual bands. 

      “The market is expanding, competition is growing, and companies are innovating at an incredible pace. The NRO is taking deliberate steps to integrate these emerging capabilities into the U.S. government architecture,” Banik said in November. “For the NRO, this really is about partnerships with the commercial remote sensing industry. This commercial data is very valuable. It is absolutely necessary for the NRO to satisfy our mission.”