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For a $500 million Earth Science program, NASA is considering an unusual business approach

ByRoman Frąckiewicz

Dec 1, 2021

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA is looking for ideas on how the private sector can help the space agency get the most from a $500 million budget to collect data on Earth’s changing surface. “Industry feedback on whether a public-private partnership, a commercial purchase, or other arrangements between the US space sector and NASA could offer the scientific community considerably the same capabilities as numerous NISARs,” according to a Request For Information issued by JPL on November 19. NISAR is a Synthetic-Aperture Radar (SAR) spacecraft that will be launched in 2023 by NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization.

Surface Deformation and Change, which offers data on volcanoes, glaciers, earthquakes, landslides, ice sheets, and groundwater, is one of the missions covered by the 2017 Earth Science Decadal Survey.

NASA owns and operates the satellites for the majority of Earth Science missions. In this case, meanwhile, NASA headquarters as well as JPL officials determined that obtaining the desired observations stated in the Decadal Survey along the typical method would cost significantly more than the $500 million currently planned for the Surface Deformation and Change space segment. As a consequence, the space agency is investigating how the burgeoning commercial space sector, in general, and the commercial SAR market, in particular, can assist.

There are numerous options available. According to the RFI, NASA and one or even more industry partners might form a public-private partnership to create the new dataset, with “NASA and one or more sector partners splitting the risk and expense.” According to the RFI, there is currently not a substantial enough business market to warrant purely commercial expenditure in getting this type of data.

NASA, for example, may fund “the one-time capitalization cost to build the data source and act as an anchor client,” according to the RFI. NASA and the US government would get some data rights in this situation. Companies, on the other hand, could sell data for a few days or weeks at a time, since time-sensitive data is typically more valuable to commercial clients than it is to researchers.

The RFI states that “in the longer run,” information products developed from Surface Deformation constellation created via a public-private partnership must adhere to NASA’s policy of open and full sharing of NASA data.

In a different situation, NASA may purchase a subscription to get data from the commercial SAR constellation. According to the RFI, a commercial entity might supply the desired observations with a constellation of four to 18 satellites. NASA might also acquire the information it requires by purchasing, launching, and managing batch-produced spacecraft. Small SAR satellite constellations are being built by companies all over the world. However, the observations NASA seeks will necessitate S-band or L-band antennas that are significantly larger than higher frequency antennas used by commercial satellite operators.

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