The US Air Force has recently awarded a Colorado-based startup a $1.25 million contract to support nighttime thermal imaging operations for its intelligence assessment unit.

As part of the deal, the satellite company Albedo will provide the Air Force with its specialized equipment that will enable the service to collect and analyze high-resolution satellite imagery data from visible and thermal infrared spectrums at night for the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC).

Enhancing Intelligence Capabilities with Thermal Imaging

Thermal imaging is among the vital tool for intelligence gathering. It can help identify head signatures and activity patterns in areas that may not be visible to the naked eye or traditional imaging technologies. By leveraging thermal imaging technology, the Air Force, along with the Space Force, can gather critical intelligence insights to support operations and other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.

In this statement, US Space Force ISR Deputy Director Joseph Rouge explained that the commercial satellite imagery available for nighttime operations is currently limited to synthetic aperture radar (SAR). Synthetic aperture radar uses microwave frequencies to create detailed images of the Earth’s surface. Nonetheless, it still has limitations regarding resolution quality and the ability to detect certain types of materials.

By contrast, high-resolution thermal infrared imaging can provide a new, more effective remote sensing solution for the US Space Force. As mentioned, it can detect heat signatures and temperature variations in the environment, allowing it to identify objects and features that may not be visible through other imaging technologies, such as visible light or SAR. Thermal imaging can also work effectively at night, making it a valuable tool for intelligence gathering and other applications.

Rouge noted that the Space Force recognizes the potential value of thermal infrared imaging for its operations and is actively seeking new solutions and technologies that can help further enhance its intelligence capabilities.

By leveraging the unique capabilities of thermal imaging, both the Air Force and Space Force can gain a new and powerful tool for gathering critical intelligence insights, thus staying ahead of potential threats or challenges.

“We’re committed to accelerating the Air Force and Space Force’s ability to understand its performance against our problem sets and apply our capabilities on-orbit,” Rouge added. “Nighttime thermal infrared imaging can help our intelligence analysts, warfighters, decision makers, and field operators solve complex emerging threats day and night.”

Albedo’s Cost-saving Solution

Meanwhile, Albedo CEO Topher Haddad expressed the startup company’s excitement to work with the US defense on the project that will showcase its thermal imaging technology.

Haddad highlighted in a statement the growing popularity of the technology in both defense and commercial markets due to its ability to provide valuable intelligence insights when combined with visible imagery during daytime.

Moreover, the Albedo CEO is particularly thrilled to demonstrate the temporal advantage of thermal imaging, which allows for continuous monitoring and analysis 24/7, enabling the service branches to gather critical intelligence insight at nighttime.

In an interview with Breaking Defense, Haddad explained that Albedo’s satellites will feature designs capable of capturing two types of imagery: optical and thermal long-wave infrared.

The optical imagery has a resolution of 10 centimeters, meaning it can capture images with fine details. On the other hand, the thermal long-wave infrared imagery has a resolution of two meters (200 cm) and can detect temperature variations and heat signatures in the environment.

Haddad said that these two types of imagery can simultaneously collect data, giving the analysts a more comprehensive understanding of the observed environment. For example, optical imagery can provide details of the physical features and activities, while thermal imagery can provide insight into the temperature and heat signatures of the same area. This data fusion can allow analysts to identify objects and features that may not be visible through other imaging technologies, such as visible light or synthetic aperture radar, thus providing them with extra intelligence.

Just a quick side note: Albedo is the first company to receive a license from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to sell ultra-high-resolution satellite imagery in the US. The NOAA is the federal agency responsible for regulating US remote sensing companies.

Haddad, a former Lockheed Martin satellite engineer, and his co-founders found a solution to significantly reduce the cost of developing and producing these ultra-high-resolution imagery satellites.

Unlike most satellites that use higher orbits, Albedo plans to launch satellites into a very low Earth orbit (VLEO) between 250 and 450 kilometers, which subsequently reduces the required aperture size. To overcome the effects of gravity, the company will then use electric propulsion to keep the satellite in place, Hadded explained in the interview. Additionally, this technology is more fuel-efficient and allows extended imaging periods without requiring high thrust. The larger size of the satellites also makes VLEO viable for Albedo’s operations, as smaller CubeSats would quickly fall out of the sky.

Second Contract Under D2P2 SBIR Grant

The $1.25 million contract is a follow-up on a previous award to research the performance, mission effectiveness, and application of Albedo’s satellite imaging capabilities for the US military. It is the second contract under the Direct to Phase II (D2P2) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from US Air Force’s AFWERX innovation arm (Air Force Work Project).

The additional funding now brings Pentagon investment in satellite imagery to approximately $2.5 million.

Albedo aims to launch its first satellite within two years, planning to develop a six-satellite constellation that can revisit any spot once a day. It also plans to have a 24-satellite constellation, allowing up to five passes per day over a given area.

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