Planet Labs flock release
Planet began sending its first "flock" of Doves from the International Space Station in 2014. Now, the company operates the world's largest constellation of Earth observation satellites. Credit: Planet

WASHINGTON — NASA is ready to move ahead with plans to purchase Earth science data from commercial smallsat companies as it weighs the balance of large and small satellite systems to meet its research needs.

NASA’s fiscal year 2017 budget request included $30 million for a new program called the Small Satellite Constellations Initiative. It is designed to cover a range of efforts to support the development and use of small satellites in Earth science, including a potential purchase of data from commercial small satellite constellations.

While Congress has yet to pass a fiscal year 2017 appropriations bill for NASA, the agency has studied the feasibility of a pilot data purchase program. It released in July a request for information (RFI) from companies in the field to assess their interest in the program, the types of data they have available and other issues involved with data purchases.

“After assessing all the responses, we were able to conclude that there is a commercial vendor pool that already exists,” said Christina Moats-Xavier, deputy program director of NASA’s Earth System Science Pathfinder Program Office, during a Jan. 10 meeting of the Earth science subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee at the Kennedy Space Center. “The data they are collecting is relevant to our Earth science research goals.”

The results of the RFI, she said, convinced the agency to move ahead with the initiative. “If we get an appropriation for this specific activity, we intend to make this a reality,” she said, with a goal of spending $25 million on the effort. NASA, she added, is working on preparing a formal solicitation should the program be funded.

The RFI specifically mentioned two classes of data it was interested in acquiring: Global Positioning System radio occultations, which provide information on atmospheric conditions, and medium-resolution multi-spectral images. However, NASA left the door open in the RFI for companies to suggest additional types of data.

“That turned out to be a good thing, because we got additional responses to the RFI,” Moats-Xavier said, not elaborating on either the companies who responded or types of data they offered.

The goal of the effort is to see how commercial data can be used without requiring the companies who provide it to make changes to how they produce it. “It’s different from saying, ‘Here are the characteristics of the products that we need,’” Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth science division, said at the meeting. “We’re coming at it from a standpoint of an interested consumer, saying, ‘I wonder what the product that you’re providing could do to help us.’”

Other agencies are also starting pilot programs for purchasing commercial data from small satellites. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded two contracts for GPS radio occultation data in September. The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency also awarded a contract to Planet in September for commercial imagery.

Freilich said he has been in regular discussions with Stephen Volz, the assistant administrator for satellite and information services at NOAA, about their respective commercial data programs. “We knew NOAA was under tremendous pressure for radio occultation data buys,” he said, a reference in recent years to efforts by Congress to get NOAA to start such a program. “We made sure our programs were separable, coordinated, and each side knew what the other one was doing.”

The data purchase initiative is one part of a broader effort by the Earth sciences program to examine the capabilities and potential applications of constellations of small satellites. Freilich, at the committee meeting, mentioned several other efforts, ranging from using cubesats for in-space validation of technologies to support for NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program for dedicated launches of small satellites.

“People see all kinds of potential in the use of small satellites in these different kinds of constellations to possibly advance science,” he said. A topic for debate, he said, is whether NASA should increase or decrease its investment in smallsats relative to more conventional, larger missions.

Freilich added, though, that he did not see smallsats as a solution to all of NASA’s Earth science needs. “There is, I believe, an ill-conceived belief that somehow by saying that you’re going to do something with small satellites, maybe saying you’re going to do it with small satellite constellations, that we can do everything that we’re doing now only better and for pennies on the dollar,” he said. “We’re focused on what comes out, not how we did it.”

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...