Planet Skysat image shows clouds of steam rising from the Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha’apai volcano as heat vaporizes a small crater lake on Janaury 7, 2021. NASA researchers are using this data to monitor activity on volcanic islands. Credit: Planet

SAN FRANCISCO —  NASA intends to continue buying data gathered by commercial Earth-observation satellites.

“The Commercial SmallSat Data Acquisition program is now a sustainable program,” Kevin Murphy, NASA Earth Science Division chief science data officer, said Jan. 27 at the American Meteorological Society annual meeting. “These commercial capabilities offer some cost-effective means to advance and extend our research and applications in conjunction with the data that we collect from NASA, our international partners and our other U.S. government agencies.”

NASA spends roughly $30 million a year evaluating commercial data sources and purchasing datasets. The increasing pace of commercial satellite launches is prompting NASA officials to look for ways to improve the data-acquisition process.

“We’ve been basically looking at our entire existing program — from how we do the science, how we do the evaluation, how we set up the contracts, everything — to be more agile,” said Will McCarty, NASA Commercial SmallSat Data Acquisition program scientist.

NASA is working “to establish a continuous and repeatable process,” Murphy added. “Predictability for industry is a key tenet of this program.”

NASA established a Commercial SmallSat Data Acquisition pilot program in 2017 to see whether commercial observations could augment or complement government datasets. When principal investigators showed that the data acquired contributed to Earth-observation research and applications projects, NASA began buying datasets.

NASA currently acquires data from Maxar Technologies, Planet, Spire Global and Teledyne Brown Engineering. In addition, NASA purchases high-resolution Digital Elevation Models produced by the EarthDEM Project, a collaboration that includes the University of Minnesota’s Polar Geospatial Center, Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center, and the University of Illinois National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and based on Maxar satellite data.

Through requests for information issued about once a year to once every 18 months, NASA identifies new or enhanced Earth-observation datasets. The next request for information is scheduled to be released in the spring.

Currently, NASA is evaluating Earth-observation datasets shared in response to previous requests for information. For example, the space agency is evaluating potential applications for synthetic aperture radar data provided by Airbus U.S. NASA also is preparing to issue a call for principal investigators to evaluate the utility of optical imagery from BlackSky.

NASA has a strong preference for working with U.S. companies, due in part to U.S. commercial remote sensing policy. “In the instance where capability does not exist in the U.S. industry, we certainly can look at capabilities that are outside,” Murphy said.

NASA is working “very closely” with other government agencies that acquire commercial remote sensing data including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Reconnaissance Office, Murphy said.

As part of the Commercial SmallSat Data Acquisition program, NASA negotiates end-user license agreements with companies chosen. At the outset of the program, NASA obtained some data through scientific case licenses with restrictions on publication.

In recent years, NASA has pushed to expand access to “a broader community of users,” Karen St. Germain, NASA Earth Science Division director, said Jan. 26 at the American Meteorological Society meeting NASA Earth Science Division Town Hall. “During our negotiations with commercial providers, we stress the importance of scientific reproducibility based on these commercial products and try to ensure that we can do that with at least a sampling of that information.”

NASA has a license to share Spire data with other U.S. government agencies and a license to share Planet data with federal civilian agencies including National Science Foundation  researchers.

To ensure companies still can sell their most valuable data, NASA generally acquires data with a 30 day latency.

“We are not doing operational work here,” Murphy said. “There are some instances where we would like slightly lower latency, but for the vast majority of our users the 30 day latency” is not a problem, he added.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...