WASHINGTON – Government and industry users of Landsat imagery are encouraged by the long-term recommendations unveiled by an interagency working group in January but eager to get more specifics, particularly a more detailed satellite concept and a procurement strategy.


The draft report of the Future of Land Imaging Interagency Working Group recommends that a government-owned satellite or group of satellites supply the core needs of
agencies in the future when it is time to retire the current mission on the books, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM). The working group also recommends in its draft report that the core data be supplemented by imagery from commercial- and foreign-owned satellites.


While the working group’s recommendations are currently in draft form, they could be delivered to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as early as February, Gene Whitney, the U.S. Geological Survey representative to the office, said when addressing the industry group Management Association for Private Photogrammatic Surveyors (MAPPS) in January.


The working group, made up of officials from
military and civil agencies and commercial companies that use land imaging data, has been at work since February 2006.


Their mandate from the Office of Science and Technology Policy was to develop a strategy for continuity of Landsat data beyond the expected lifetime of the LDCM, which is scheduled to be launched in 2011 to replace the failing Landsat 5 and Landsat 7 spacecraft. NASA issued a request for proposals for LDCM Jan. 9. The contract date is dependent on industry response to the solicitation, said NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown, but is probable by the end of 2007. NASA is doing a separate procurement for the bus and the ground system for LDCM, and hopes to complete these acquisitions by the end of the year as well, he said.


The working group was asked to recommend the best way to ensure continuity of Landsat data beyond the lifetime of the LDCM mission. The
United States
has been gathering land remote sensing imagery nearly continuously since 1972.


In his preview to MAPPS about the working group’s recommendations, Whitney said the core capability would be provided by at least one
government-owned and government-operated moderate-resolution satellite. The government would then need to obtain the rest of the land imaging data it needs by forming partnerships with industry and foreign countries. The working group also will recommend that the program be supervised by the U.S. Department of Interior, Whitney said.


A remote sensing industry source, said he was disappointed the working group did not provide more specifics such as whether there would be more than one spacecraft, what the specific resolution would be, and what sort of revisit time the system would have.


“Any plan, in order for it to be viable, has to have the answer to how many requirements it will be satisfying,” the source said. “You won’t be able to develop a strategy without this. The [working group] didn’t push this hard or recognize this reality.”


The industry source said the working group could have looked through various government databases to determine a set of universal requirements for the different users of Landsat imagery, and used these to determine specifics for the design of the satellite or satellites.


Kass Green, a Berkeley, Calif.-based remote sensing consultant and former president of Space Imaging Solutions, said in a telephone interview Jan. 25 that further refinement of the working group’s recommendations should be made the responsibility of whatever future advisory committee supervises the program.


“It’s probably a moving target that is going to change over time, but you need a group of experts to spell it out and realize the changes over time,” Green said.


The government official familiar with the working group’s efforts said the group looked at U.S. weather satellites as a procurement model, but did not specifically recommend that the same procurement model be selected for acquiring spacecraft after LDCM. The official also noted that the working group’s recommendations did not define specific requirements because an actual launch is so far off.


“We went into this not to design a satellite, but to talk in general terms about core capabilities,” the official said.


White House Office of Science and Technology spokeswoman Kristin Scuderi said Jan. 25 that the office does not comment on reports such as the working group’s recommendations when they are still in draft form.


David Logsdon, executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Space Enterprise Council, said that some of the council’s member companies had concerns about the lack of specificity regarding the procurement process.


Logsdon noted that the Department of Interior does not have an organization that is experienced in procuring satellites, so one will need to be created. “Even though everyone believes [Interior] will ask for NASA’s support … to assist in technical decisions and [possibly with] contracting to build the satellite, there are many details still to be figured out,” Logsdon said.


Green said she was pleased with the report’s recommendations as a whole.


“I think the whole hope is this is going to stabilize the future funding, once it becomes an operational program,” Green said. “I think that setting up a national land imaging program that’s at the department level, not at the secretary level, is a major step forward; it’s really good for the continuity of moderate resolution imagery, and very good for the taxpayer.”


Logsdon said the working group’s pending report is in line with many of his council’s recommendations, such as having a single agency head up future missions. During his presentation in January, Whitney said the working group had not done a rigorous economic analysis of the need for moderate-resolution imagery, though that was something they had considered doing originally. Ray Williamson, a research professor at George Washington University here, said he would have liked to have seen that analysis.


“It would have been nice of them to do that,” he said. “If you can’t quantify the benefits, at least document the details of how many scientific users there are out there, how many papers in journals refer to Landsat data … though I can understand from a cost standpoint why they may not have done that.”


The government official said that the working group determined that doing such an analysis was ultimately too expensive for the group to undertake, and it would be the Department of Interior’s decision, if it supervises the program, whether such a survey is necessary for the future.


Industry members outside of the United States who are anticipating the release of the recommendations are waiting to see what it could mean for their own involvement in a future land imagery program.


Steve Miller, director of defense accounts for the U.S. office of Toulouse, France-based Spot Image Corp., said he is not discouraged by Whitney’s remarks and thinks that his company could have a role to play not only in data procurement but possibly in the construction of hardware as well.


“The human race has some real challenges ahead, and I don’t think that any one country or any one entity can solve those. I think we’re all better-served by a high level of cooperation … and to kind of spread around the resource requirements,” Miller said. “You could say that that is self-serving, but this is a business, and you need to look at efficiencies.”


NASA currently is reviewing the recommendations for the future of land imaging made by the working group, Brown said.


After the committee’s recommendations are delivered to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, it is unclear what the next step will be, or when it will take place, the government official said. Regulations governing the program could come in the form of a presidential order, or an authorization bill in Congress, the official said.