Before (first ) and after (second) photos of the 2014 fires in Happy Camp, California that show how SWIR satellite imagery can help customers see through smoke and wildfires. Credit: DigitalGlobe.

WASHINGTON – Leaders of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee want to know why it’s taken the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration more than three years to decide whether DigitalGlobe can sell higher-resolution infrared imagery data from their Worldview-3 satellite.

In a June 6 letter, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the committee chairman, and Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), the chairman of the space subcommittee, asked the Commerce Department to explain delays in issuing DigitalGlobe a license to sell high-resolution infrared data and when the agency expects to issue a final decision. The Commerce Department oversees NOAA.

NOAA regulations require the Commerce Department to make a decision within 120 days of receiving a licensing request or to inform the applicant of any outstanding issues. DigitalGlobe submitted the request in May 2013.

The Short Wave Infrared (SWIR) imager, built by Exelis, is one of three instruments on DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 satellite, which launched in 2014. When fully-utilized, the SWIR images allow customers to determine which materials are used in building construction, to see through smoke and clouds, and to more accurately characterize rock structures. It also offers a wide swath of applications to commercial users, ranging from insurers to archaeologists.

The SWIR imager can produce 3.7-meter resolution data, company officials say, but DigitalGlobe is only licensed to sell that data to the U.S. government. Non-government customers can purchase 7.5-meter resolution data.

With NOAA as the licensing authority, several federal agencies, including the Commerce, State, Defense and Treasury departments, are reviewing DigitalGlobe’s request and studying the issue for possible national security implications. It is unclear when a decision will be made.

A NOAA spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Walter Scott, DigitalGlobe’s chief technical officer and executive vice president, first mentioned the delay during a May 17 presentation at the GEOINT conference. The lag in approval has stifled how industry can discover new uses for the data, he said.

“DigitalGlobe appreciates the continuous efforts of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to address the years-long delay in the U.S. Government’s consideration of DigitalGlobe’s request to sell its native-resolution shortwave infrared satellite imagery,” he said in a June 6 email to SpaceNews. “This is just the latest in a long line of regulatory decisions – and indecisions – that have hindered U.S. industry’s competitiveness in the global commercial remote sensing market.

“Overly restrictive regulations prevented the emergence of a domestic radar imaging satellite industry, and Canadian, German, and Italian firms now dominate this market.”

In the June 6 letter to Penny Pritzker, the secretary of the Commerce Department, Smith and Babin asked for all communications with DigitalGlobe on the issue, a timeline of actions, and a list of departments that have not yet made a decision on the license.

They also ask for “an explanation of why NOAA has so drastically prolonged and delayed the process,” according to a press release from the committee.

A response from Pritzker is due by June 24.

DigitalGlobe officials credit Pritzker for personally stepping in and helping the company receive permission from NOAA in 2014  to sell mages with resolutions as sharp as 25 centimeters to non-U.S. government customers.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.