The new system, known as BASIC, would be launched by 2011 and is expected to cost $2 billion to $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 and 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.
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 program. 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.
"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.
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 the system's potential capabilities that is to be completed this month.
Officials said the Pentagon is considering a range of options, but the new program 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.
U.S. commercial satellites currently can make out the outline of 2-foot-long object from space. In April, a satellite will be launched with the ability to see a 16-inch object. By 2011, that capability is expected to narrow to nearly 10 inches.
Industry officials said the contract probably will 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 U.S. military has a $1 billion contract with two commercial satellite companies to buy space imagery. Each $500 million contract pays for a satellite, its launch and 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, one of the imagery companies under contract with the Pentagon.
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 a high-powered telescope on a single satellite. Those capabilities currently are provided by different satellites, according to an industry official.
When the Pentagon canceled the program 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 nation's classified network of satellites represent some of the most expensive government programs and receive 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.
The House and Senate intelligence committees have criticized the Pentagon and intelligence agencies' management of space programs. Half the programs have experienced cost growth of 50 percent or more. The Defense Department spends about $20 billion annually on space programs.