Space: U.S. Goes Commercial

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April 15, 2009: The Department of Defense is getting $10 billion to build two military grade photo-satellites, similar to the ones already in orbit, plus two commercial grade photo satellites. Congress is still steaming over the failure of the Department of Defense to design and build a new generation of military photo satellites. It was four years ago, that the U.S. cancelled the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) system. This disaster cost the government more than $10 billion, when a poorly conceived and run effort to create a more powerful new generation of intelligence satellites failed. Instead of FIA, the two existing military photo satellites will simply be replaced with similar designs. In addition, the Pentagon will buy two commercial photo satellites, for about $850 million each, to replace what the Department of Defense is currently spending ($25 million a month, and rising) on photos from commercial photo satellite companies. The two commercial birds, which will be owned by the Department of Defense, will be launched in three years.

The Future Imagery Architecture system was to be a new generation of smaller and more numerous spy satellites that would provide more coverage of targets down below, and, because of the larger number of satellites, a more difficult target for anyone seeking to destroy the U.S. spy satellite capability. The project, begun in 1998, was poorly designed and managed. In retrospect, it was doomed from the start because of a lack of technical talent on the government side, and the selection of the low bidder (Boeing) that lacked the experience and capabilities to carry out a job like this.

It has long been suggested that the government just rely on commercial photo satellites for their low resolution (able to detect vehicles and buildings) photo satellite needs. But the military and intelligence agencies often need more photo satellite time than the commercial companies can provide. The government also wants to insure secrets are kept by having complete control over a pair of commercial grade satellites.

The two new commercial birds would take over the task of tracking troop movements, bases and military operations in general. The two new high resolution, military grade, spy satellites designs are improved versions of existing ones. These are used to get detailed (able to detect something smaller than an inch) photos of something the commercial grade images (able to detect something 12-18 inches in size) found interesting.

The troops and military planners are also big users of Google Earth, which annoys the people running the military satellite program. But for many military satellite needs, Google Earth does the job. The two military, commercial grade, photo satellites will eliminate the potential for information leaks (about what the military is buying images of) and provide much more capacity to do low resolution jobs.

 

 


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