HOUSTON — Despite concerns from some in the space industry of a glut of Earth observation satellite constellations, growing demand for imagery and other data could fuel the continued development of these and other systems.

In sessions at the Space Commerce Conference and Exposition, or Spacecom, here Nov. 15, so-called “big data” technologies, which use advanced computer algorithms to extract insights from large data sets, emerged as a key factor in driving demand for commercial satellite imagery and related data.

Carissa Christensen, managing partner of consulting company The Tauri Group, noted that investor interest in the space industry was driven in part by reduced costs enabled by advances in small satellites. Another factor, she said, was the promise of “big returns” on their investments from demand for the images and other data products many of those satellites will produce.

“What they’re betting on,” she said of investors, “is that those ventures can tap the data analytics market, a $50 to $100 billion market that takes big data and interprets it and provides business insight.”

That’s possible, she said, since companies developing small satellite remote sensing systems can offer a unique data set, such as imagery of the entire Earth updated daily, a frequency far higher than traditional satellite systems. Those images can then be analyzed by computers using “machine learning” algorithms than can extract information for use in various applications.

One such application is agriculture, where satellite and other data is used to improve crop yields. Steven Ward, director of geospatial sciences at The Climate Corporation, said during another conference panel that his company currently uses data from six space-based systems that he did not identify. He said he expected that number to double in the next 12 to 18 months.

Ward said that while his company deals with petabytes of data — one petabyte is one million gigabytes — every week, he still did not have enough. “Simply put, there’s not enough data yet for us. We’re not satisfied.”

He said later that he’s seeking a wide range of additional data. “From a space technology standpoint, we’ve got tons of data,” he said. “But we’re still lacking in temporal cadence, we’re still lacking in spatial resolution, and we’re lacking in spectral diversity.”

That data, he added, is unlikely to come from a single system. “I’m a firm believer that there’s no silver bullet out there. There’s not one sensor, not one constellation, that’s going to answer all of our problems. It’s going to take a portfolio of technologies and a portfolio of providers.”

That interest in data from smallsat remote sensing systems contrasted with greater skepticism about another market, broadband communications systems using constellations of satellites. Other panelists at Spacecom expressed doubts that the business cases for such systems could close, based in part on experience from previous efforts dating back to the 1990s.

“I don’t know, if I was sitting on a [venture capital] board and I got a proposal to go into the broadband business, that I would consider any investment,” said Wanda Sigur, vice president and general manager of civil space at Lockheed Martin.

She was more optimistic about smallsat applications in the Earth sciences, citing developments such as the decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in September to purchase weather data from two companies operating smallsats, and NASA’s plans to acquire Earth science data from smallsats.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...