Umbra 16-cm image
A synthetic aperture radar image illustrating the 16-centimeter resolution Umbra can now offer after NOAA loosened restrictions on its license. Credit: Umbra

LOGAN, Utah — The agency that regulates commercial remote sensing satellite systems has loosened restrictions imposed on many companies’ licenses, enabling them to provide higher-resolution imagery or other services.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Aug. 7 that it had modified “Tier 3” commercial remote sensing licenses for several companies, removing conditions that had been in place for up to three years.

The conditions were part of a revision of the commercial remote sensing licensing system enacted in 2020. That effort was intended to streamline the licensing process and reduce the amount of time license applications were reviewed by the government. That created three license tiers, including a Tier 3 for the most advanced systems. That tier gave NOAA the ability to include temporary restrictions on those licenses.

“NOAA is fulfilling the commitment we made to industry in our 2020 regulations,” said NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad in a statement. “We said these temporary restrictions would last no more than three years, and three years later, we lifted them.”

NOAA said it lifted 39 restrictions on an unspecified number of licenses. Those restrictions include a reduction of global imaging restrictions for certain imaging modes and removal of restrictions on non-Earth imaging and rapid revisit. It also removed all temporary conditions on X-band synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery.

One of the companies that benefits from the removal of the conditions is SAR imaging company Umbra. The company announced Aug. 7 that, with the removal of the conditions, it can now offer SAR images to customers at a resolution of 16 centimeters, compared to no better than 25 centimeters under the old license conditions.

“This means that we are finally able to offer customers the highest resolution images that our satellites are capable of capturing, setting the stage for even further expansion of products to customers,” said Gabe Dominocielo, Umbra’s co-founder and president, in a company statement.

The removal of the temporary conditions is seen by both government and industry as a means to improve the competitiveness of U.S. remote sensing companies in the global market. “U.S. capabilities lead the world in this important market, and this licensing change will maintain that lead,” said Spinrad.

“In the past, NOAA has taken a conservative approach to resolution limits for U.S. vendors following a long-held policy that a foreign vendor must provide a capability commercially before U.S. companies could field equivalent products,” tweeted Joe Morrison, a vice president at Umbra. “Now, they’re putting U.S. companies in the drivers’ seat again.”

NOAA noted that a “small number” of Tier 3 restrictions are being retained for national security reasons at the request of the Secretary of Defense. NOAA did not specify what restrictions remain in place and on what licensees.

As of the first quarter of 2023, NOAA reported 23 Tier 3 licenses, a quarter of all active licenses. NOAA has issued 71 Tier 1 licenses for systems that provide data “substantially the same” as foreign systems and thus have no restrictions. There are no Tier 2 licenses for systems whose capabilities are the same as other NOAA-licensed systems.

NOAA added in its announcement that the revised regulations have achieved one goal of reducing license processing time. The agency said it has reduced the average time to review a license from 48 days in 2020 to 14 days in 2023. The 2020 regulations set a 60-day deadline for reviewing license applications.

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...