The US is pursuing a multibillion-dollar programme to develop the next generation of spy satellites, the first major effort of its kind since the Pentagon cancelled the ambitious and costly Future Imagery Architecture system two years ago, according to US officials.
The new system, known as BASIC, would be launched by 2011 and is expected to cost $2-4bn (€1.4-2.8bn), according to US officials familiar with the programme.
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 and other natural disasters.
The new start comes as many US officials, politicians and defence experts question the high costs of satellite programmes, particularly after the demise of the previous programme that wasted time and money.
The National Reconnaissance Office spent six years and billions of dollars on Future Imagery Architecture, or FIA, before deciding in September 2005 to scrap a major component of the programme.
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 £3bn (€2bn) before the Pentagon pulled the plug, according to industry experts and government reports.
"They grossly underestimated the cost of the programme", as well as the technological feasibility of FIA, said John Pike, a space expert who heads GlobalSecurity.org. FIA "was an hallucination", he said.
The Defence Department is in the initial stages of preparing the new programme for bidders. The Pentagon's classified "request for information" on the technology was issued this autumn to industry. Comments were due two weeks ago. A solicitation for proposals is expected next spring.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is conducting a study to determine what satellite capabilities are feasible. The analysis will be completed by the end of the year.
Officials said the Pentagon was considering a range of options, but the new programme is expected to be significantly less ambitious than the one it is meant to replace.
Options include developing an entirely new photo imagery satellite or a derivative of a commercial imagery satellite, buying a commercial satellite or leasing existing satellite capacity.
A US commercial satellite launched in September by DigitalGlobe can make out the outline of a 20in object from space. In April, a satellite will be launched with the ability to see a 16in object. By 2011, that capability is expected to narrow to nearly 10in.
Industry officials said the contract probably would be for a commercial or commercially derived spacecraft because of the time and budget constraints and the government's apparent desire to maintain control of the satellite.
The US military has a $1bn (€680,920) contract with two commercial satellite companies to buy space imagery. Each contract pays for a satellite, its launch and insurance and roughly 200 million dollars 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.
GEOEYE and DigitalGlobe have the imagery contract with the Pentagon.
When the Pentagon cancelled the programme in 2005, it hired Lockheed Martin to cobble together a space craft from spare parts from the current generation of secret electro-optical reconnaissance satellites to cover a potential gap in coverage.
The House and Senate intelligence committees have criticised the Pentagon and intelligence agencies' management of space programmes. Half the programmes have experienced cost growth of 50% or more.
The US Defence Department spends about $20bn (€13.6bn) annually on space programmes.