NASA will begin a pilot program this spring to determine whether the agency wants to purchase Earth observation data from the leagues of private small satellites that are orbiting the planet. Twin trends of decreased costs to access space and advancements made in satellite technology has spurred considerable growth in the private smallsat sector. Meanwhile, funding for NASA’s own Earth observation operations is increasingly under threat by the Trump administration, which is hoping to re-direct NASA towards sending Humans to the Moon and Mars and away from Earth science.
NASA is now trying to determine whether it wants to purchase data from private sector smallsat firms, rather than continue to operate its own Earth-observing satellites. In 2016, NASA released a request for information (RFI) for Earth observation data. At the time, five companies responded to the request, and only three were able to deliver the data that NASA needs. In December 2017, NASA released a second RFI and the pool of applicants doubled to 11.
The classes of small satellites, including nanosats, cubesats and others, have become a rapidly-evolving market over the past few years. Key advances in electronics has helped to open up the market to growing commercial applications such as asset tracking, maritime and air monitoring, agricultural monitoring, logistics and security. In response, a number of private firms have popped up in hopes of serving the increased launch demands, with new data start-ups arriving each quarter.
There’s reason to believe the market will see more growth in the coming years. BIS Research predicts the small satellite sector will continue to see a major boom over the next 10 years, “owing to advancements in satellite miniaturization, increasing capability of electronic technology, and ascending demand for small satellite constellations,” the firm said in a recent report. “Recent innovations in satellite equipment and services is expected to enable nano satellite technology to reach a wider segment of consumers in the industry.”
NASA is trying to determine if it can cash in on the trend by outsourcing its own Earth observation data operations to the private sector. NASA is now deciding which companies will participate as data science partners for the pilot program. Those decisions will be based on things such as how much the data will cost and what type of licensing is available to NASA for the data.
NASA will then use the pilot program as an opportunity to “share” the data with its partners, to determine whether the quality of data is worth NASA’s money. “If the we like what we see and the data is of value, we want to go ahead after the pilot and set up a different kind of contractual mechanism for data continuity,” said Sandra Cauffman, deputy director of NASA’s Earth Science division, speaking at the American Meteorological Society.