Rep. Brian Babin urged NASA to look into buying more Earth imagery from commercial sources. Credit: House Science Committee video

WASHINGTON — U.S. House lawmakers signaled bipartisan willingness to encourage greater use of commercial satellite imagery at NASA, although exactly which data might be used for what purposes is unclear.

The occasion was a joint hearing Nov. 17 of the House Science space and environment subcommittees, which was called amid an explosion of commercial interest in satellite imaging and weather monitoring. Lawmakers have been pushing government agencies that utilize satellite-collected data, including NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to take advantage.

NASA primarily is a research agency, whereas commercial imaging satellites are typically used for operational purposes such as mapping, crop monitoring and change detection. The agency’s closest match with private-sector activities appears to be the Landsat program, which collects low- to medium-resolution visible and thermal imagery for applications including land-use and vegetation mapping. The U.S. Geological Survey, part of the Interior Department, operates these satellites.

Among the witnesses at the hearing were representatives from commercial imaging satellite operators DigitalGlobe and Planet Labs, who were optimistic about their potential to support NASA’s mission.

Walter Scott, founder and chief technology officer for Digital Globe, pointed out that industry has already gotten Landsat-like instruments to orbit at below government cost. He referenced the company’s year-old WorldView-3, which lacks the latest Landsat spacecraft’s thermal imaging capabilities but overlaps with some of its visible and near-infrared capabilities.

“That was done leveraging technology that had been developed for the Landsat program, but at a very small fraction of the cost of a Landsat satellite,” Scott said. “That’s just an example of the sort of innovations that are happening in the commercial sector that I would encourage the government to understand better in making its future decisions.”

NASA was not called to testify on its own behalf. But Samuel Goward, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Department of Geographical Sciences in College Park, Maryland, and one-time Landsat science team leader, said during the hearing that “what Planet Labs and DigitalGlobe are doing are not the same thing” as the alternatives NASA is exploring for replacing the current Landsat 8 satellite, which was launched in 2013.

One lawmaker nonetheless chided NASA for not being proactive about leveraging commercial data. “It is time for NASA to initiate constructive dialogue with the private sector to assess the viability of public-private partnerships for the provision of space-based Earth observation data to meet NASA program requirements,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science space subcommittee.

The ranking Democrat on the full Science Committee agreed in principle.

“With growing numbers of American companies operating space-based remote sensing small satellites, this might be an opportune time to assess the private sector’s ability to complement NASA’s Earth observation systems,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said in her opening statement.

DigitalGlobe of Westminster, Colorado, is the most established U.S. commercial imaging satellite operator, anchored by a 10-year, $7 billion contract with the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency that runs to August 2020. The company, which acquired its only rival for NGA data buys in 2013, operates four high-resolution imaging satellites.

San Francisco-based Planet Labs, on the other hand, has raised only about $150 million since its founding in 2010. But with that money, the company has launched more than 100 three-unit cubesats — around 50 of these are still flying — and plans to have global coverage online this time next year via some 250 shoebox-sized satellites pumping out new global mosaics every quarter. Also part of the stable is the RapidEye constellation of 5-meter optical and near-infrared satellites, which Planet Labs acquired from Berlin’s BlackBridge in July.

In 2013, the White House ordered NASA to come up with a plan for keeping Landsat data flowing at least through the early 2030s. Options under consideration include buying commercial images, testing new Landsat-like instruments aboard small spacecraft -— possibly even cubesats -— and launching proven Landsat instruments as free-flyers aboard satellites weighing several hundred kilograms.

Goward cautioned that two previous attempts to commercialize the Landsat program ended in failure. “Both of those efforts have put us behind in the science value of this mission to observe the Earth as a result of those activities,” he said. “So when you talk to the science community, you’re going to get a very funny reaction about public-private partnerships.”

Meanwhile, the Landsat program as currently structured has its own allies in Congress, most notably Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The Landsat program is managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The massive appropriations bill that funded all federal activities in fiscal year 2015 directed NASA to immediately start development on an improved Landsat 8 clone at Goddard — and to forget about experimental procurement approaches involving commercial data buys or hosted payload schemes.

To that end, NASA created a Landsat 9 program office at Goddard this year and is already targeting a 2023 launch.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.