Industry Insights

Commercial SmallSats Expand NASA Knowledge Bank

2020-05-31  |  5 min read 

With the success of NASA’s and SpaceX’s recent Dragon launch, much excitement and attention are now focused on human space travel. Recently, I wrote a blog about how NASA’s commercial collaborations are lending the agency greater space travel capabilities while providing time and cost benefits (see “U.S. Launch Signals Agency and Commercial Collaboration”). Beyond these larger-sized projects, however, NASA has been working to leverage commercial small satellite capabilities and technologies. Specifically, the agency is reaping the benefits of low earth orbit (LEO) commercial constellations by purchasing their Earth observation data.

This effort began in 2017, when NASA launched the Private-Sector Small Constellation Satellite Data Product Pilot Project. Its goal was to evaluate how observations derived from Earth-orbiting, small-satellite constellations could provide a cost-effective means to augment observations from the agency's fleet of orbiting Earth science missions. That pilot became today’s Commercial Smallsat Data Acquisition Program (CSDAP).

According to NASA’s EarthData site, “CSDAP was established to identify, evaluate, and acquire data from commercial sources that support NASA's Earth science research and application goals. NASA's Earth Science Division (ESD) recognizes the potential impact commercial small-satellite (smallsat) constellations may have in encouraging/enabling efficient approaches to advancing Earth System Science and applications development for societal benefit. Commercially acquired data may also provide a cost-effective means to augment and/or complement the suite of Earth observations acquired by NASA and other U.S. government agencies and those by international partners and agencies.”

New organizations can apply annually to be part of CSDAP as long as they fulfill satellite coverage and data collection requirements. NASA-funded researchers already can use imagery and data from Maxar Technologies, Planet, Spire Global, and Teledyne Brown Engineering. As each of these companies became part of CSDAP, NASA has been able to fine-tune its program processes and better understand the data needed by researchers. This will help it enable the sustained use of this purchased data for wider use and dissemination by the NASA scientific community.

The data from commercial systems complements NASA data by providing a larger, more complete picture of what NASA was already seeing. NASA also ensures a high quality of data for researchers by vetting data from organizations for aspects like completeness, accuracy, and accessibility. From 2017 through this year, CSDAP pilot activity evaluated data from operating commercial small-satellite constellations for research and applied science activities. According to the agency, the data did successfully augment and/or complement NASA observations, providing a cost effective means to advance/extend research and applications. Clearly, NASA is benefiting in many ways from this new era of commercial collaboration. We look forward to seeing the developments that will be created as a result.

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