America's space-based spy agency awards six contracts to hyperspectral imagery providers

Two satellite images, one hyperspectral, showing more information.

The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has awarded five-year study contracts to six space companies that provide hyperspectral satellite imagery -- BlackSky, Orbital Sidekick, Pixxel, Planet, Xplore and HyperSat -- as the agency seeks to expand its remote sensing capabilities.

The NRO, the arm of the Department of Defense that conducts space-based spying and surveillance, released a request for proposals from hyperspectral satellite operators last November. The awards announced today were granted under the agency’s Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) Framework, a program that’s used to rapidly acquire and integrate new space-based sensing technologies. The agency has previously awarded BAA contracts for radio frequency remote sensing and commercial radar technology.

An NRO spokesperson told TechCrunch it anticipates the value of each contract to be about $300,000, and that "they can quickly be scaled to much higher values as mission value, customer requirements, and on-orbit provider capabilities are confirmed."

In a statement, Pete Muend, director of the NRO’s commercial systems program office, highlighted the speed with which the agency was moving in acquiring new tech.

“In just over four months from RFP release to award, these contracts demonstrate our continued commitment to agile acquisition,” he said. “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.”

Hyperspectral is a powerful type of remote sensing that includes wavelengths well beyond what people or traditional optical devices can see, allowing sensors to “read” spectral signatures and distinguish between different objects and even different types of materials. As Orbital Sidekick CEO Dan Katz explained to TechCrunch in January, hyperspectral imagery could be used to detect gas leaks in pipelines or even chemical weapon signatures.

The contracts will be carried out in two stages: first, the NRO will look at each companies’ capabilities, as well as its cybersecurity and business planning. The second stage will focus on data procurement.

The story has been updated with comments from an NRO spokesperson.