WASHINGTON – A working group asked to suggest how the U.S. government could best handle the acquisition of moderate resolution satellite imagery after the planned Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), is recommending development of a government-owned core satellite. That core spacecraft would be used to fulfill the bulk of the government’s imagery requirements with the remainder provided by foreign and domestic sources, including commercial providers.


Current plans call for LDCM, which will replace the existing government-owned and operated Landsat satellites, to be launched in 2010 or 2011, but the government has no formal plan for what happens after that, said Gene Whitney, the U.S. Geological Survey’s representative to the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. Whitney, who spoke Jan. 9 at a policy forum sponsored by the Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors (MAPPS), has been leading the Future of Land Imaging Interagency Working Group, which is made up of officials from
civilian and military agencies that use Landsat. The group has been working on the issue since February 2006 and plans to deliver its recommendations to John H. Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, as early as February.


Part of the working group’s mandate was to prepare what Whitney called an “exhaustive analysis” of whether the
government needs to be involved in the procurement of a moderate-resolution remote sensing capability in the future. He defined that capability as data resolution between five and 120 meters, which means objects that size and larger can be identified in the images.


While the group did not have the time to do the detailed economic analysis on the need for moderate resolution data that they had planned to do, Whitney said they did determine that the government needs to have a role beyond LDCM.


“It’s just essential,” he said.


Whitney said that the committee agreed that the
United States
should own and operate its own land imaging satellite to provide a core capability for the government. The report does not outline exactly what this core capability would be, he added.


“The idea is not to try to meet all the needs for all users through a large constellation,” Whitney said. Instead, the government will supplement what the core capability does not provide through data buys from industry and international partnerships,” he said.


Responding during the forum to questions from representatives of Toulouse, France-based Spot Image Corp., which has said before that it hopes to play a greater role in the
moderate resolution imagery program, Whitney said the working group will not recommend looking for international assistance to build the core capability.


The working group also will recommend that the Landsat satellite be owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Interior, but does not specify that it be under the specific jurisdiction of the U.S. Geological Survey as some have suggested, Whitney said.


MAPPS executive director John Palatiello said at the forum that the group is concerned about USGS having control of the program, saying that the agency historically has been put in charge of programs but not gotten the necessary budget to carry them out.


“They’ve always been very eager about getting new responsibilities but [they] never get any funding, and the program suffers,” Palatiello said. “My fear is, if that scenario plays out here, we’ll have a lose-lose situation.”


Whitney said it would ultimately be the Department of Interior’s decision where the program’s administrative duties would fall.


“They may decide to put it in USGS,” he said. “That’s not what we’re recommending but they may have reasons for doing that.”


NASA would likely still construct and launch the satellites, but the funding and control of the satellite would not fall under NASA’s purview, Whitney said.


Even with a firm plan for a Landsat-type satellite in the works, the problem of funding for such a program will still need to be solved, Whitney said.


He estimated that addressing moderate-resolution imagery needs beyond LDCM would likely cost around $100 million a year operationally. Whitney said that the working group is sensitive that the recommendations not appear to be an unfunded mandate to the Department of Interior, which he said seems receptive to taking on the Landsat responsibilities.


“Interior sees this plan coming down the railroad tracks,” he said. “I thought they might recoil in horror, but surprisingly they didn’t.” Whitney said that new management in the department seems more receptive to the idea than previous administrations have been. He noted that USGS’s annual budget of about $900 million would have to be increased to pay for a Landsat program.


Whitney said that the working group’s report does not address what role the government will have in the production of value-added products coming from moderate-resolution imagery.


MAPPS members are especially interested in the government’s plans for value added products because value-added service providers make up much of the organization’s membership. “I personally would support privatizing as much as possible,” Whitney said.


government, however, is just getting started on LDCM, and is not even close to preparing for the era that will follow. A request for proposal for the first of three contracts that will make up LDCM – one for the instrument, one for the bus and one for the ground system – was expected in early January, but has not yet been released. NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown could not specify when the request for proposal would be issued by press time.