NRO’s spy satellite fleet becomes more diverse

“We are spreading our architecture,” says NRO director Chris Scolese

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

“We’re spreading our architecture,” Chris Scolese, director of the NRO, said Aug. 4 at an event hosted by the Mitchell Institute.

The NRO is an intelligence and defense agency that builds and operates secret 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 launched by the agency on July 13 and August 4 were small satellites co-developed with the Australian government and launched on commercial Rocket Lab vehicles from New Zealand.

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

“We’ll let physics determine what we need,” he said. There is still demand for traditional satellites launched on large rockets from the Eastern Range and Western Ranges, “but we are also going with smaller systems that we can disperse and improve that revisit time.”

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

“The ability to launch virtually anywhere in the world gives us great flexibility and adds to our resilience,” said Scolese. “It also gives us the ability to recover if we lose a capability, either through mission failure or in conflict.”

For cheaper small-sat missions, the NRO will buy satellite buses from the open market, such as those used by commercial operators, he said.

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

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

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