How to Buy Satellite Images by the Thousands

April 2010
Topics: Satellite Communications, Image Processing, Geographic Information Systems
MITRE helped the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency write an acquisition contract for its NextView program, which buys thousands of satellite images from commercial companies at a discount while improving the vendors' global competitiveness.
satellite map

One of the jobs of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is supplying large volumes of satellite images to the Department of Defense (DoD). Many of these images are purchased through NGA's NextView program, which is a unique industry-government partnership with two U.S. commercial satellite imaging companies. As part of its work with NGA, MITRE helped the agency develop the NextView contract, which assures a stable supply of large volumes of imagery and a stable flow of income to the satellite imagery providers.

NGA is a combat support agency for the DoD and a member of the national intelligence community. The agency develops imagery and map-based intelligence products for U.S. national defense, homeland security, and general navigation uses. The NextView program, which became fully operational in February 2009, serves as the primary source of unclassified imagery that NGA uses to provide up-to-date worldwide maps and other geospatial intelligence products to the DoD and intelligence communities.

Military and Civilian Support

Information collected and processed by NGA is tailored for specific customer requests. By giving customers ready access to geospatial intelligence, NGA provides support to civilian and military leaders and contributes to the state of readiness of U.S. military forces. NGA also contributes to peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts, such as tracking floods and disaster support.

"This was the first major government program to incentivize a commercial industry to invest in improving its capability," says Ed Walser, who led the MITRE team that supported the agency's NextView acquisition program. "It's an ongoing service that provides a continuous supply of high-quality unclassified imagery to meet government requirements," (See "Presidential Directive Encourages Industry-Government Partnership" below.)

Portion of a half-meter resolution WorldView-1 satellite image of Royal Bafokeng Stadium, South Africa. (Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe.)

Portion of a half-meter resolution WorldView-1 satellite image of Royal Bafokeng Stadium, South Africa. (Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe.)

Two commercial companies are participating in NGA's NextView program. First, DigitalGlobe was awarded a $500 million NextView contract in 2003 for imagery that would come from its future satellite, WorldView-1. In 2004, NGA awarded a similar NextView contract to Orbital Imaging Corporation, now called GeoEye, for imagery from its future satellite, GeoEye-1.

"These were not system procurements, but were capability procurements," says Walser. "They were an investment in NGA's future capability to order high-quality commercial imagery at significantly reduced pricing. The two satellite suppliers then went to the investment sector and secured enough funding to complete the advanced satellites that would supply the imagery that NGA needed."

NGA's imagery specifications called for an image resolution of 50 centimeters (a half-meter), which was not previously available commercially. The WorldView-1 and GeoEye-1 satellites meet or exceed this specification, and both are now providing the highest resolution commercial satellite imagery available. For comparison, the most widely known Earth observation imagery, which is collected by the U.S. government's Landsat-7 Thematic Mapper satellite, has a panchromatic (black and white) resolution of 15 meters. Half-meter imagery has a 900 times greater pixel density than Landsat imagery. In other words, 900 half-meter pixels would fit in a single Landsat pixel.

Complex Challenges

"NextView presented unusual challenges in its contracting approach," Walser says. "Developing this type of industry-government partnership is exceptional because it requires a commitment to a stable relationship from both parties over a period of five or more years." The NextView contracts are the agency's first data purchase service-level agreements (SLAs); they provide a framework for a long-term sustained level of delivery and technical services to NGA. Prior to the NextView program, the NGA bought relatively small quantities of imagery by the square kilometer. As the agency increased its use of commercial imagery to supply its global mapping mission for the DoD, this purchasing approach became unwieldy.

MITRE helped the agency negotiate an SLA for continuous delivery levels of imagery for a flat monthly fee, which dramatically reduced the management burden for purchasing imagery. MITRE also helped NGA monitor the execution of these NextView SLAs. In one instance, MITRE identified changes to the ordering process that increased imagery deliveries for NGA by more than 10 percent without increasing the actual cost of the SLA.

The NextView contracts provide DigitalGlobe and GeoEye the opportunity to build markets external to the U.S. government. "Essentially, NGA purchased an end-user license agreement—which provides for non-exclusive use of the imagery," Walser says. "This allows the satellite imaging companies to develop commercial markets for the same unclassified imagery they provide to the government. These images are used in Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth, for example, to provide highly detailed renderings of the Earth's surface features. This imagery is also finding its way into other products as well, ranging from GPS displays to video games.

"It's a win-win for everybody because the vendors get a steady income stream and don't have to worry about month-to-month variations in revenue flow. At the same time, NGA eliminated a tremendous management and accounting burden, allowing the agency to focus on optimizing the technical capabilities of the system. Now, NGA is actually receiving much more imagery, and at unit pricing that's about 90 percent lower than it was prior to the NextView SLAs."

Images Aid Humanitarian Relief

Walser says MITRE's long involvement with NGA and national imaging programs contributed to the success of the agency's objectives. "We provide unbiased support for source selection. We also supply expertise in systems engineering, requirements for imagery, and mapping production. Some of our staff of five previously worked in the commercial remote sensing industry. Their insights enable MITRE to provide a balanced analysis of what the industry is capable of providing and how the government's objectives might be synergistic with those of the industry."

Walser also found the project personally rewarding. "We were able to engage during the early childhood of the commercial satellite imaging industry," he explains. "We helped the agency identify a cost-effective means of meeting government requirements, while at the same time fostering an environment in which U.S. companies were able to become more competitive globally.

This half-meter resolution image of Khalifa Sports City Complex in Doha, the capital of Qatar, was collected by the GeoEye-1 satellite on January 10, 2009. The image shows the blue-domed Hamad Aquatic Centre. Doha is the capital and largest city in Qatar. This image was taken from 423 miles in space as GeoEye-1 moved from north to south over the Middle East at 17,000 mph. The inset shows the detail of the Aspire Tower with the high resolution imagery. (Image courtesy of GeoEye Satellite Imagery).

This half-meter resolution image of Khalifa Sports City Complex in Doha, the capital of Qatar, was collected by the GeoEye-1 satellite on January 10, 2009. The image shows the blue-domed Hamad Aquatic Centre. Doha is the capital and largest city in Qatar. This image was taken from 423 miles in space as GeoEye-1 moved from north to south over the Middle East at 17,000 mph. The inset shows the detail of the Aspire Tower with the high resolution imagery. (Image courtesy of GeoEye Satellite Imagery).

"NextView is also fostering transparency into the human activities of populations around the world. For example, during the Darfur crisis, imagery from these satellites helped document the human rights abuses there. For Hurricane Katrina and the Indonesian tsunami disasters, NextView imagery was given to federal, state, local, and non-government agencies that provided relief to the affected populations."

The NextView acquisition model proved so successful that the agency structured a follow-on acquisition in 2010, called EnhancedView, on the concepts that were pioneered by the NextView program. MITRE is helping the NGA increase its use of unclassified commercial imagery by supporting that acquisition as well.

—by David A. Van Cleave

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