Key West from space (Source: Planet)

Planet, Spire score NASA commercial Earth science pilot data contracts

NASA announced it has awarded sole source blanket purchase contracts for test data sets from New Space start-ups Planet and Spire Global, along with old-school DigitalGlobe.  Under the “Private Sector Small Constellation Satellite Data Product Pilot” program, NASA will purchase data sets and related products based on observations derived from Earth-orbiting, small-satellite constellations designed and operated by non-governmental entities.

 “This pilot program is an innovative and efficient way for us to acquire, examine, and evaluate a wide range of private sector Earth observation data,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division. “As our very capable NASA research satellite fleet ages and more small satellites are launched by private industry, there are opportunities to leverage the strengths of each into even more complete climate data sets.”

The NASA contracts are the first time the agency has purchased data from commercial small-satellite constellation operators for scientific evaluation.  NASA will be able to acquire and examine the data and services during the next 12 months, with a contract option to extend the agreement for an additional four years at a total contract value of up to $7 million for each of the three agreements.

NASA will provide the test data and products to NASA-funded researchers to determine if the private sector observations and associated tools offer a cost-effective means to augment or complement the current set of Earth observations acquired directly by NASA, other U.S. government agencies, and international partners.

For Planet, having NASA buy data from it is a bit of a homecoming.  Planet was founded former NASA employees Will Marshall and Robbie Schingler, with Will being the NASA principal investigator building a small cubesat incorporating phone electronics.  Fast forward to 2018 and Planet operates three satellite constellations with more than 150 satellites collecting six terabytes per day and imaging the entire Earth’s service every day.

Spire Global currently operates the third largest satellite constellation, with over 60 satellites collecting GPS radio occultation soundings, aircraft location information and ship reports. GPS RF measurements can be used to get data on atmospheric temperature, water vapor, and atmospheric pressure, with the data being applied for better climate measurements and modeling.

If you are looking for a virtuous cycle here, both Planet and Spire have sent their nanosatellites up to the International Space Station for deployment via regular supply runs, hitching a ride either inside a SpaceX or Cygnus cargo vehicle or, more recently, on the outside of the Northrup Grumman Cygnus.

Old-timer DigitalGlobal operates five high-resolution Earth imaging satellites capable of collecting multispectral data and imagery with up to 30 centimeter resolution. High-resolution imagery may not be as useful for climate measurements as multispectral capabilities, given Planet will be able to provide 3-5 meter imagery of the entire Earth on a daily basis with the demonstrated capability to use wider-area imagery to queue its higher-resolution satellites for 1 meter resolution imagery and short HD video.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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