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Foust Forward | Commercial collaboration becomes a hot topic in Earth science

Earth science has gained emphasis at NASA. With climate change a major priority for the Biden administration, NASA has played up its role in studying the Earth, from a new line of missions called the Earth System Observatory to creating an Earth Information Center, something NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has called a “mission control” for disseminating data NASA satellites collect about the planet.

“There are a lot of people who don’t realize that NASA spends more effort studying our own home planet than it does any other planet,” said Julie Robinson, deputy director of NASA’s Earth science division, during a panel at the AIAA SciTech Forum Jan. 25. (It only seems like Mars gets more attention.)

But NASA is increasingly stretched thin in Earth science. Robinson and other NASA officials have warned of budget pressures as the agency tries to balance starting new missions, like the Earth Systems Observatory, with extending older missions long past their design life but still working well.

“It’s pretty clear that the resources are not and will not be available to fully implement the intended program,” warned Waleed Abdalati, a former NASA chief scientist, at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council Jan. 17. The options, he said, are to delay the missions recommended by the most recent Earth science decadal survey (which he co-chaired) or start turning off operating missions.

One solution may be to look to the private sector and its growing capabilities. NASA already spends a modest amount buying commercial satellite data for use by NASA-funded scientists. But, as that conference panel showed, the industry’s capabilities are growing increasingly sophisticated and specialized, suggesting there are more opportunities for collaboration.

“There are many more needs today for remote sensing than there were previously, and there’s much more capability to match those needs,” said Cathy Olkin, a planetary scientist who held key roles on NASA’s Lucy and New Horizons missions but is now principal scientist at an Earth observation startup, Muon Space.

That company is planning a satellite constellation focused specifically on detecting and tracking wildfires, providing early notice of fires for first responders as well as data for scientists to better understand their development. “Fire is a great application for remote sensing,” she said. “It’s really doable today when you’ve got launch costs and sensor costs coming down.”

NASA is increasingly stretched thin in Earth science. Data buys could help.

Muon Space is not alone. Others are looking into satellite capabilities to track and study wildfires. The Aerospace Corporation even assigned a team of interns last summer to study a satellite constellation to monitor fires, an urgent issue for the California-based organization. “I happen to like California, but every summer it catches on fire,” said Rob Stevens, director of Aerospace’s Model Based Systems Engineering Office.

There is already some overlap between what private industry offers and what NASA does in Earth science, particularly in such specific applications. Robinson noted that an Earth science instrument on the International Space Station, called EMIT, was originally designed to track dust in the atmosphere but has proven its ability to monitor methane, including from leaking pipelines.

“A methane pipe is leaking money, so people want to cap that,” she said. Yet there are private satellites, in development or in service today, that offer similar services. NASA, in fact, announced last year it would start buying data from one company, GHGSat, that monitors methane emissions using satellites.

Growing that Earth science data purchase program, particularly for applications like monitoring methane leaks or tracking wildfires, would help NASA do more in a tight budget, freeing up resources for more sophisticated missions outside the scope, or the business models, of the private sector. It’s the same approach NASA has taken in low Earth orbit with commercial cargo and crew, and on aspects of Artemis, like commercial lunar landers.

“Certainly at NASA we don’t want to go build a mission that duplicates a mission of the commercial sector,” Robinson said on the panel. Increasingly, it can’t afford such duplication.

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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...