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Sun, Dec 02, 2007

$2-4 Billion Spy Satellites On The Schedule For Launch In 2011

Boeing Plan Flopped, New Satellites Could Be Commercial

A multibillion-dollar program is being explored by the US to develop the next generation of spy satellites since the Future Imagery Architecture system was cancelled two years ago, according to the Associated Press.

The next system, called BASIC, is planned to be launched by 2011 and initial costs are estimated to start at $2 billion to $4 billion, according to US officials who discussed details on condition of anonymity, because the information is classified.

Photo reconnaissance satellites are used to gather visual data from miles above the earth looking at adversarial governments and terror groups, such as construction at suspected nuclear sites or militant training camps. These satellites could also have dual rolls to survey damage from natural disasters. The new system has been proposed in the void left by other costly attempts.

Six years and billions of dollars were spent by the National Reconnaissance Office on Future Imagery Architecture, or FIA, before deciding in September 2005 to scrap a major component of the program. Boeing the primary contractor had run into technical problems in the development of the electro-optical satellite and overran its budget by nearly $3 billion before the Pentagon ordered it stopped, as reported by ANN.

"They grossly underestimated the cost of the program," as well as the technological feasibility of FIA," said John Pike, a space expert who heads GlobalSecurity.org. FIA "was a hallucination," he said. In the meantime, the Pentagon has issued a "request for information" on technology issued this fall. Comments were due weeks ago, a solicitation for proposals expected in the spring.

A range of options for the new system are being considered, but the new program will be far less ambitious than previously planned satellites. An entirely new photo imagery satellite is one option, or a new type of commercial imagery satellite, buying an existing commercial satellite or leasing satellite capacity on existing satellites are options available today. Currently commercial satellites can make out the outline of a 24-inch long object from space. In spring of 2008 a satellite will be launched with the ability to see a 16-inch object. In three yeas that capability is expected to narrow to nearly 10 inches.

According to industry officials, the commercial aspects looks most feasible due to time constraints. A contract for $1 billion with the US military for two commercial satellite companies to buy space imagery is eminent. Costs are covered with two $500 million contracts that pay for a satellite, its launch, insurance and roughly $200 million in photo imagery.

"We would look forward to reviewing any new government acquisition request since we give the government more eyes in the sky and high quality imagery at a fraction of the cost," said Mark Brender, vice president for communications at GEOEYE, an imagery company under contract with the Pentagon.

The Boeing satellite using FIA was going to offer both wide-angle and telephoto imagery options. Now, those images will have to be provided by two separate satellites.

The Pentagon hired Lockheed Martin to piece together a spacecraft from spare parts from the current generation of secret electro-optical reconnaissance satellites to cover any gaps in coverage. The nation's classified network of satellites represents some of the most expensive government programs and receives almost no public oversight. Because of their multibillion-dollar price tags, sensitive missions and lengthy development schedules, spy agencies go to great pains to keep details from becoming public.

Due to the classified nature of the costly satellite network, there is no oversight. U.S. spy agencies go to great lengths to keep these projects silent. Costing the Defense Department $20 billion annually, these programs have triggered criticism from both the House and Senate intelligence committees over growth costs of 50 percent of more annually.

FMI: www.geoeye.com/default.htm, www.nro.gov

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