A breakwater, an artificial island, and a series of massive sluice gates in the Venetian Lagoon‘s Lido Inlet as seen by a RapidEye satellite. Credit: Planet

NEW ORLEANS — NASA expects to purchase Earth science data from constellations of commercial satellites early next year to see how useful they are in meeting the agency’s research needs.

NASA issued a request for information (RFI) Dec. 5 seeking details from companies that have such constellations and are interested in selling data to the agency. The deadline for responses is Dec. 22.

“What we are recognizing is that many of you in the private sector have fielded constellations of small satellites for your own business reasons,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth science division, in a Dec. 12 town hall discussion about the data purchase effort at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union here.

Those systems, he said, may also be collecting data of interest to NASA. “The question that we’re asking in NASA is what value do the data products that come from your small satellite constellations have to the government to advance our research, science and applications interests.”

In the RFI, NASA asks companies to submit information on their current satellite constellations and the data that is available from them. It defines constellations as systems of at least three satellites in non-geostationary orbits that provide large-scale coverage of the Earth.

Freilich said that NASA will review the RFI responses and then establish blanket purchase agreements with multiple companies to acquire some data in order to examine their suitability. Those agreements could be in place by the first quarter of 2018.

“We would like to work with you to purchase those data products in a pilot to then evaluate their worth in advancing our NASA programs,” he said. “This is an attempt to develop a relationship, with money coming from us to you and data coming from you to us, to allow us to figure out whether what you are producing is useful for our science or not.”

NASA issued a similar RFI in 2016 regarding Earth science data from commercial smallsat constellations, proposing to spend $25 million on such data. Freilich said after the town hall that delays in a final fiscal year 2017 budget kept them from going forward with a data purchase pilot earlier, and that the agency decided to perform a second RFI to get updated information from companies.

Even though NASA has been operating under a continuing resolution since the 2018 fiscal year started Oct. 1, and will likely continue to do so until at least January, Freilich said that NASA would be able to go forward with the planned purchases. “There’s no opposition to us spending continuing resolution money at levels that have been proposed in the past to identify, purchase and evaluate the data sets,” he said.

That evaluation, he said, would be done by members of the research community to see how useful they are, although the exact process for carrying that out is still being determined.

Sandra Cauffman, deputy director of NASA’s Earth science division, said the pilot program will last about one year. “Once we decide the data is good, and we want to more, we’ll figure out the best contractual mechanism to acquire that data,” she said. NASA may do additional RFIs in the future, she said, to get data on new capabilities from existing or emerging companies.

NASA is not the first government agency to pursue data purchases from commercial small satellite systems. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency awarded a contract to Planet in 2016 valued at $20 million for access to images its satellite constellation produces. Planet won a second contract with NGA, worth $14 million, in July.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued commercial weather data pilot program contracts in 2016 to GeoOptics and Spire for GPS radio occultation data. Those contracts ran through the end of April, but only Spire was able to provide data to NOAA.

A report on that initial round of the commercial weather data pilot is being completed, NOAA’s Karen St. Germain said at the town hall meeting, with plans to carry out a second round of the pilot program in 2018. The second round will again be devoted to GPS radio occultation data, but with more rigorous requirements.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...