WASHINGTON — NASA is planning to purchase tens of millions of dollars of Earth science data from constellations of small satellites in 2017 to determine how well that data can meet its needs.

At a Nov. 7 media briefing about NASA’s efforts to use small satellites to serve Earth science needs, Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth science division, said that the agency was awaiting the outcome of the agency’s fiscal year 2017 budget request before moving ahead with plans to purchase data from companies operating smallsat constellations.

“If it’s funded by Congress, NASA intends to allocate several tens of millions of dollars to purchase and evaluate the research utility of data products from private sector developed and private sector launched small satellite constellations,” he said.

The effort was included in NASA’s 2017 budget request in February as the Small Satellite Constellation Initiative, with a request for $30 million. NASA said at the time that the initiative could include a variety of activities, including validating technology for use on smallsats and fostering commercial launch services for smallsats, but the budget request did not explicitly include data purchases.

In July, however, NASA issued a request for information (RFI) stating that the agency was considering data purchases from smallsat systems for use by NASA-funded scientists and the general public. “NASA is considering the feasibility of purchasing from the private sector, and evaluating, small-satellite data products that might augment or in the future even replace NASA-collected data,” the RFI stated.

“We put out this summer a request for information that had strong response from many different private sector companies,” Freilich said.

He did not disclose which companies responded, but the RFI stated that NASA was particularly interested in “global, high-quality atmospheric profiling” data provided through GPS radio occultation measurements, as well as “moderate resolution, multi-spectral land imaging information.” Several companies, including GeoOptics, PlanetiQ and Spire, are developing smallsat constellation to provide GPS radio occultation data, while Planet operates dozens of smallsats that provide medium-resolution imagery.

Freilich said that the data purchases under this program would be demonstrations to see how useful they are, with no commitment to make continued use of the data either to augment or replace its own satellites. Various issues about their use, he said, “are the sorts of things we intend to spend the next year or so, if appropriated, working out with the private sector.”

He didn’t give additional details about their plans, but the RFI stated that NASA anticipates awarding up to $25 million in two or more data purchase agreements that it would award by the end of fiscal year 2017. That amount is consistent with the “Harnessing the Smallsat Revolution Initiative” announced by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Oct. 21, which also stated that the $25 million would go towards data purchases from smallsats, such as moderate-resolution land imaging and radio occultation data.

Freilich said that it was the goal of the initiative to make use of data also available to other customers, rather than request customized data. “Our objective is to leverage and, in a sense, glom on to what they are doing, not to direct them to do certain things for NASA research,” he said.

NASA would not be the first government agency to make use of commercially-available Earth observation data from smallsats. In September, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency awarded a $20 million contract to Planet for imagery from that company’s constellation of cubesats. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded contracts in September to GeoOptics and Spire for GPS radio occultation data as part of its own pilot program to support weather forecasting.

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...