Spy agency pumps billions into orbital imagery companies BlackSky, Maxar and Planet

A massive contract from the National Reconnaissance Office will put billions in the pockets of new and established Earth observation companies BlackSky and Planet, and the more generalist Maxar. The “Electro-Optical Commercial Layer” contracts will be paid out over the next five to 10 years.

As you might imagine, incredibly sharp pictures from space, as well as the ability to interpret and act on this imagery, is something of a valuable asset for the NRO. It’s an obvious strategic asset that has proven its value time after time, but increasingly it is not necessary to rely on government-owned assets like spy satellites.

“The NRO has a long-standing strategy of ‘buy what we can, build what we must,'” said NRO director Chris Scolese in a press release. And that balance has been shifting.

Commercial imaging capabilities on orbit, as demonstrated by Planet and BlackSky in particular, have likely outstripped many assets put in place over the last few decades by the NRO. It’s not particularly feasible to launch a new, “secret” constellation that provides the level of coverage those providers do, so they’re just going to pay for the kind of high-level access the companies always knew would be valuable.

Under the new EOCL contracts, the companies have a five-year base (comprising about half the awarded amount) and five additional single year options, so that the services can be extended or augmented at will.

Maxar has been providing these services to the feds for decades, and some old capabilities and responsibilities will roll over under the new contract, which it valued at about $3.24 billion in total. The contract adds “shortwave infrared, non-Earth imaging, nighttime imaging and theater direct downlink” to Maxar’s plate, which covers quite a lot of surface area, literally and figuratively. The NRO is interested in intelligence beyond the planet itself, obviously.

Planet did not publicly value the contract, but basically defined it as a premium subscription to all their imagery, including from the fleet not yet in orbit. So it may be that they declined to list a value so that the cost of that service could not be reverse engineered from it. Or maybe they’re just private people over there.

BlackSky is perhaps the most thrilled of the three, if its stock price is any indication. In addition to providing imagery directly through its own constellation, the company has recently focused on building a data platform meant to be the first stop for anyone looking to make sense of information coming from orbit.

CEO Brian O’Toole recently told me “The world is going to be awash with sensors — it’s a massive market that’s massively fragmented. So we started building the software platform that integrates all that using AI and machine learning.” That bet seemingly has paid off, and O’Toole noted today that BlackSky has been tapped to provide imagery for the Ukraine conflict, where hourly scale intelligence has proved invaluable.