Air Force purchases first private satellite technology

The Air Force last week departed from decades of tradition with dedicated intelligence satellites and awarded its first satellite-imaging contract based on commercial technology instead of agency-specific hardware.

Orbital Sciences Corp. won the contract that will allow the Defense Department to shave as much as 75 percent off the cost of a satellite demonstration proj-ect designed to help warfighters pick out camouflaged targets on the battlefield. The contract has a potential value of $41.5 million through January 2001.

As part of the contract the Air Force will piggyback its satellite-imaging demonstration onto Orbital's OrbView-3 satellite a bird designed to supply imaging data to commercial customers. The data will come in the form of hyperspectral imagery an emerging technology that can tune into hundreds of channels of visible and infrared light and help analysts on the ground distinguish between live foliage or camouflage netting which is commonly used to hide weapons.

"The program is essentially an operational demonstration of the use of a commercially based space capability with a unique [government] functionality " said Robert A. Rosenberg former director of the now defunct Defense Mapping Agency and current executive vice president/general manager of Washington D.C. operations for Science Applications International Corp. "The Department of Defense world in the past has not reached out to the world of commercial satellite builders and asked: What can we do to [provide an incentive for you] to work with us in the Defense Department to use your advanced commercial technology?"

Col. Michael Havey director of space experiments at the Air Force's Phillips Laboratory in New Mexico which made the award to Orbital said "We're talking smaller less performance and greater capability."

The project called Warfighter-1 could lead the military away from the old-school method of contracting for big satellites with long life spans and the potential for longer periods of obsolescence. Instead the Air Force - like the commercial sector - may tend to buy smaller specialized satellites with shorter life spans that are easier to replace as technology changes.

The OrbView-3 satellite will have a five-year life span. Some military satellites have life spans close to 10 years. "You can't afford to put up a satellite that's going to last for 10 years because of the technology that's needed " Rosenberg said.

By piggybacking the Warfighter-1 demonstration project onto the OrbView-3 satellite the Air Force will spend roughly one-fourth of what it would pay if it were to contract for its own exclusive satellite which would have cost from $150 million to $180 million Havey said.

The Warfighter-1 project comes at the beginning of what could be a golden age for the imagery industry - an era in which more people in industries such as agriculture environmental remediation and real estate are expected to demand more imagery creating a need for more satellites.

"The sky is going to be exploding with commercial systems " said Rosenberg whose company will be a subcontractor on Warfighter-1. "You are going to find all kinds of economies."

Orbital hopes to enjoy the benefits. "We are very excited about the additional market opportunities that hyperspectral imagery capacity will open for us " said Gilbert D. Rye president and chief operating officer of Orbital's Orbital Imaging Corp. subsidiary.

In addition to launching Orb View-3 Orbital must ensure that warfighters on the ground can receive and manage the information gathered by the satellite. The Air Force contract requires the company to develop a mobile ground station to receive the satellite data and Orbital must provide software to process the data and software for assessing tactical uses of the hyperspectral data.

Officials at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency - the agency that collects imagery to create electronic and paper maps for military intelligence and national-policy decision-makers - said it is not using hyperspectral imagery and is not affected by the contract.

John Pike co-director of the Intelligence Resource Program at the Federation of American Scientists said the Air Force's approach with Warfighter-1 is one directed by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence which favors smaller imagery satellites of specialized design.

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