Earth Science and Climate Monitoring | Station Provides Unique Vantage Point for Remote Sensing

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SAN FRANCISCO — One of the primary benefits of installing Earth science instruments on the international space station is access. 

“You can actually deliver a piece of hardware, install it, check it out, test it and if it does not perform as planned, you have the opportunity to repair or replace it,” said Duane Ratliff, chief operating officer for the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the nonprofit organization based at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida tasked with promoting and managing the international space station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory.

“For hardware mounted externally, we have the ability to access it through the Japanese Experiment Module. We also have opportunities to use robotic arm manipulation for deployment and repair.”

CASIS is touting this and other unique features of the orbiting outpost as it solicits proposals from researchers interested in developing new instruments or using existing space station hardware to perform Earth observation. 

“Proposals should seek to use the national lab for studies of Earth, Earth’s atmosphere, astronomy and planetary science with the goal of benefiting life on Earth,” reads the CASIS request for proposals, “Remote Sensing from the International Space Station,” issued Oct. 17. 

“We are trying to focus on those entities that want to use it primarily for commercial application or benefit,” Ratliff added.

The space station offers a unique vantage point. Flying in low Earth orbit at an altitude that ranges from 300 to 460 kilometers, its orbital path covers approximately 90 percent of Earth’s populated areas. Its inclined equatorial orbit is not sun-synchronous. The space station orbits Earth about 16 times per day and passes over the same location approximately once every three days. As a result, instruments could gather data on target sites under various lighting conditions. “If you are not focused on the poles, it’s a pretty decent platform for conducting Earth observation,” Ratliff said.

Before the recent solicitation was issued, CASIS officials held conversations with researchers interested in performing a wide range of Earth observation projects. Visidyne Inc. of Burlington, Mass., for example, is seeking to use instruments mounted on the space station to assist in predicting the intensity of tropical cyclones. In addition, some companies are eager to use hyperspectral imaging to identify promising sites for exploration of underground fuel stores, while another organization wants to assess “how the growth of communities outside major metro areas may impact local flora and fauna,” Ratliff said. 

CASIS also has been approached by firms interested in distributing visual imagery drawn from space station cameras. 

“It’s a huge market,” Ratliff said. “Companies are interested in using the vantage point of ISS to obtain high-definition still and video imagery to enhance [Internet] mapping platforms and even make that type of imagery for sale on the commercial market.”

Private industry and academic researchers as well as government researchers who are not affiliated with NASA can submit letters of intent to participate in the CASIS program by Nov. 21. Completed proposals are due Dec. 19.

CASIS plans to provide a total of approximately $1.5 million for projects deemed meritorious. “The number of grants awarded and the amount of the grants will depend on the number of meritorious applications received and instrument/equipment requested,” the Oct. 17 solicitation says. 

Projects selected to receive CASIS funding will not have to pay for access to on-orbit facilities, transportation to the space station, data processing or time spent by astronauts assisting with experiments, CASIS officials said.

In its solicitation, CASIS encourages bidders to familiarize themselves with hardware currently installed on space station or scheduled to fly, including the Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean, ISS Servir Environmental Research and Visualization System, High Definition Earth Viewing Window Observation Research Facility, NanoRacks cubesat deployer, NanoRacks external platform and Teledyne Brown’s Multi-User System for Earth Sensing (MUSES). 

The first cubesat dispensers built by Houston-based NanoRacks LLC are scheduled for launch on Orbital Sciences Corp.’s second and third space station resupply missions flown by the firm’s Cygnus cargo vehicle. NanoRacks plans to send its external platform, which is designed to test research payloads, sensors and electronic components, to the space station in 2014 on Space Exploration Technologies’ fifth space station resupply mission, Jeffrey Manber, NanoRacks managing director, said by email.

Teledyne Brown Engineering is in the final stages of designing MUSES, an Earth imaging platform that can simultaneously host as many as four instruments. 

“We’re excited to work with the [NASA] national lab office and CASIS to take advantage of ISS for remote sensing,” John Horack, space systems vice president for Teledyne Brown Engineering of Huntsville, Ala., said by email. “ISS provides a cost-effective way to boost the commercialization of space and expand scientific research which can have tremendous human benefit.”