NRO’s spy satellite fleet to become more diverse

By Sandra Erwin,
Published by SpaceNews, 4 August 2022

“We’re proliferating our architecture,” said NRO Director Chris Scolese

WASHINGTON — The head of the National Reconnaissance Office said the agency will continue to build large, bespoke satellites but also will increasingly rely on lower cost commercial smallsats and payloads developed with international partners. 

“We’re proliferating our architecture,” Chris Scolese, director of the NRO, said Aug. 4 at a Mitchell Institute event. 

The NRO is an intelligence and defense agency that builds and operates classified surveillance satellites. 

Earlier this year two SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets launched national security NRO satellites from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. But two recent space missions the agency launched July 13 and Aug. 4 were small satellites developed jointly with the Australian government, and launched on commercial Rocket Lab vehicles from New Zealand. 

A mix of small and large satellites launched to different orbits “will become the norm,” said Scolese. 

“We’re letting physics dictate what we need,” he said. There is still a demand for traditional satellites that launch on big rockets from the Eastern Range and Western Ranges, “but we’re also going with smaller systems that we can proliferate and improve that revisit time.”

Having access to multiple launch sites around the world also is part of the plan, said Scolese. Besides the major coastal ranges and Rocket Lab’s New Zealand sites, the NRO launches missions from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, and in the future hopes to launch from the United Kingdom

“Having the capability to launch pretty much from almost anywhere in the world gives us great flexibility and adds to our resilience,” said Scolese. “It also gives us the ability to reconstitute should we lose a capability either due to a mission failure or in a conflict.”

For lower cost smallsat missions, the NRO will buy satellite buses from the open market like the ones used by commercial operators, he said. 

“We need to work with spacecraft that are, for all intents and purposes in the space industry lexicon, commodities,” Scolese added. “We’re seeing very capable buses being developed. And we’re going to take advantage of those because that’s going to help us reduce the cost of our constellations.”

The NRO will buy satellites from commercial production lines but also wants to learn “how we can adapt some commercial practices to government systems so that we can make all of our systems more efficient and more affordable.”

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