Sandra Cauffman, deputy director of NASA’s Earth science division, said NASA eventually may look internationally for companies who can provide Earth science data from small satellite constellations. Credit: NASA

AUSTIN, Texas — NASA plans to begin awarding sole source contracts in March to companies flying small satellite constellations as part of an Earth science data pilot program.

The purchase agreements will allow NASA “to basically buy data by the yard,” said Sandra Cauffman, deputy director of NASA’s Earth Science division.

In early December, NASA issued a request for information from companies currently flying constellations of at least three satellites to determine the types of data they are gathering. In response, the agency received 11 capability statements.

Beginning next week, NASA plans to begin meeting with those companies to learn more about the constellations, find out how much it would cost to buy data and what type of data licensing the firms will permit, Cauffman said Jan. 8 during an American Meteorological Society conference panel here on NASA and NOAA’s use of commercial weather and Earth science data.

Unlike NOAA, which is seeking to purchase weather data to share with its domestic and international partners, NASA plans initially to only share the data with researchers who can help the agency determine their value for Earth science.

“If the we like what we see and the data is of value, we want to go ahead after the pilot and set up a different kind of contractual mechanism for data continuity,” Cauffman said.

When NASA initially began investigating the market for Earth science data from small satellite constellations in 2016, only five companies responded to the agency’s request for information and only three of them proved capable of delivering data. “This time we have many more,” Cauffman said. “Companies are popping up like crazy.”

Since the market is changing so rapidly, NASA plans to provide onramps for new data providers. “We are thinking every one or two years we will release another RFI to see who else is in the market,” Cauffman said. “We want to encourage industry to talk to us if you have the intent to launch a constellation. We are interested consumers looking to purchase relevant data.”

Eventually, NASA may consider purchasing Earth science data from small satellite constellation operators outside the United States, but the initial pilot program will be limited to U.S. companies, Cauffman said.

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...