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U.S. plans next-gen spy satellite program

The U.S. is pursuing a new multibillion-dollar program to develop the next generation of spy satellites, two years after the Defense Department pulled the plug on a similar effort.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The U.S. is pursuing a new multibillion-dollar program to develop the next generation of spy satellites, the first major effort of its kind after the Defense Department canceled an ambitious and costly effort known as the Future Imagery Architecture two years ago, The Associated Press has learned.

The system, called "BASIC," would be launched by 2011 and is expected to cost between $2 billion and $4 billion, according to U.S. officials familiar with the program. They discussed details on condition of anonymity because the information is classified.

Photo-reconnaissance satellites are used to gather visual information from space about adversarial governments and terror groups, such as construction at suspected nuclear sites or militant training camps. Satellites also can be used to survey damage from hurricanes, fires or other natural disasters.

The new start comes as many U.S. officials, lawmakers and defense experts question the high costs of satellite programs, particularly after the demise of the previous program that wasted time and money.

Program scrapped in 2005
The National Reconnaissance Office spent six years and billions of dollars on FIA before deciding in September 2005 to scrap a major component of the constellation. Boeing, the primary contractor, had run into technical problems in the development of the electro-optical satellite and blew its budget by as much as $3 billion before the Pentagon pulled the plug, according to industry experts and government reports.

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"They grossly underestimated the cost of the program," as well as the technological feasibility of the Future Imagery Architecture, said John Pike, a space expert who heads

FIA "was a hallucination," he said.

The Defense Department is in the initial stages of preparing the new program for bidders. The Pentagon's classified "request for information" on the technology was issued this fall to industry. Comments were due two weeks ago. A solicitation for proposals is expected next spring.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is conducting an analysis of alternatives, slated to be complete in December. The analysis will determine what the new satellites capabilities will be.

Less ambitious program
Officials say the Pentagon is considering all its options, but the new program is expected to be significantly less ambitious than the terminated satellite it is meant to replace. Options include developing an entirely new photo imagery satellite or a derivative of a commercial imagery satellite, buying an "off the shelf" commercial satellite, or leasing existing satellite capacity.

U.S. commercial satellites now have better than two-foot resolution, meaning each pixel in a digital image spans 24 inches. In April, a satellite will be launched with 16-inch resolution. By 2011, that is expected to narrow to nearly 10 inches. Tighter resolutions let analysts see details that allow them to accurately identify missiles and other targets.

Industry officials said the contract will most likely be for a commercial or commercially derived spacecraft because of the time and budget constraints and the government's apparent desire to maintain "organic control" of the satellite.

The U.S. military is a major buyer of commercial imagery through the NextView contract, a $1 billion contract with two commercial satellite companies. Each $500 million contract pays 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, a NextView company.

The canceled Boeing satellite under FIA was supposed to provide both broad area views of the earth and the ability to home in on a single target with very high-powered telescope on a single satellite. Those capabilities are currently provided by different satellites, according to an industry official.