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News Link • Space Travel and Exploration


• Wired

INFORMATION FROM SPACE has historically been the province of the rich and powerful. Big Earth-observing satellites can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and launch, and the price of their data scales accordingly. Scrappy scientific upstarts have, for a while, been building smallsats to get orbital data on the cheap. And while a single smallsat won't give a small company or nation-state all-seeing powers, if you put a bunch of them together to form a constellation, you can get rapidly refreshed information on the planet.

Now, those commercial constellations are powerful and numerous enough that the feds are taking an interest, with both NASA and NOAA currently navigating pilot data-purchase programs. Neither organization is looking to outsource all its observations: Both agencies fly their own substantial satellites, and NASA sometimes makes its ownlittle ones. But since capable constellations of smallsats are beaming down data about the planet—all of it for sale—why wouldn't federal science agencies take advantage of the abundance?

The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency has already seen the value in that, and signed data-subscription contracts with Earth-imaging startup Planet. And it has long bought high-resolution data from giants like DigitalGlobeas has NASA. There's a reason, though, that science agencies haven't fully bought into the hype yet: Commercial smallsat companies can be capricious. They may come and go, or their data may change in quality or format, or not be up to snuff.

NOAA—responsible for things like daily weather forecasts, storm warnings, and long-term climate monitoring—operates its own fleet of 17 larger satellites, with some in the flagship GOES series valued around $500 million each. The agency isn't interested in replacing all its innate assets, or their data, with commercial smallsat stuff. But it is interested in augmentation. And so, as part of its Commercial Weather Data Pilot Program, the agency issued two contracts to smallsat companies Spire and GeoOptics in 2016. In exchange for just over $1 million, they were to provide NOAA with atmospheric data—not necessarily so NOAA could learn about the atmosphere, but so it could learn about the data's "potential value to NOAA's weather forecasts and warnings."

The program kind of halfway worked. By the time the performance period concluded, in April 2017, only Spire had anything to show for itself. Its small satellites had spied on GPS signals, using a method called radio occultation to detect slight changes as the signals streamed through the atmosphere—revealing information about temperature or moisture in the area.

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