Harnessing the Small Satellite Revolution

October 25, 2016

Over the past several years, commercial companies, government agencies, university researchers, and national labs have demonstrated the capability of small satellites (“smallsats”) and constellations of smallsats to support important commercial, civilian, and national-security applications. These applications include providing high-speed Internet connectivity to remote rural communities and transforming humanity’s understanding of the world around us with continuously updated imagery of the entire planet.

Traditional large satellites, which can weigh tens of thousands of pounds and be as large as a school bus, provide important capabilities for communications, remote sensing, and science, but they typically cost hundreds of millions of dollars per satellite and often take years to build and launch. Because of the massive investment required to build, launch, operate, and insure larger satellites, for most of the past half-century, only governments and large corporations have had the resources necessary to operate in their own satellites in space.

The recent advent of smallsats, spacecraft that weigh anywhere from an ounce to as much as a few hundred pounds, has upended that status quo. The same advances in electronics and communications technologies that enabled smartphones and put significant computing power in the palm of everyone’s hand are allowing scientists and engineers to design smallsats and coordinated networks of multiple smallsats (known as “smallsat constellations”) that deliver novel and diverse capabilities from orbit. These capabilities can sometimes be delivered at a fraction of the cost and time of legacy satellite systems. Scientists and engineers can more quickly test their systems on orbit, allowing them to devise new, better systems more quickly, shortening the cycle of innovation and finally bringing “Moore’s Law” to space.

For all of these reasons, today, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is announcing the “Harnessing the Small Satellite Revolution” initiative. Working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce, and other Federal agencies, OSTP has identified the following opportunities to promote and support both government and private use of small satellites for remote sensing, communications, science, and the exploration of space. OSTP will continue to work with Federal agencies to identify additional steps to foster innovation in the development and use of smallsat technologies.

  • NASA will propose up to $30 million to support data buys for smallsats, including up to $25 million to support data buys derived and purchased from non-governmental small spacecraft constellations and $5 million to advance small spacecraft constellation technologies.  In the near-term, NASA intends to purchase Earth Science observation data, such as (but not restricted to) moderate-resolution land imaging and radio occultation data.  The agency is also committing to a comprehensive review of space missions to determine which science and exploration needs could be met more effectively using smallsat technologies.
  • NASA will establish a Small Spacecraft Virtual Institute at Ames Research Center in the heart of Silicon Valley early in 2017.  The Virtual Institute will provide a “one-stop shop” for technical knowledge in the rapidly burgeoning small spacecraft technology fields.  It will also act within the agency to promote relevant programs, guidance, opportunities, and best practices, as well as share lessons learned on smallsat missions.  To take full advantage of the rapid iteration cycles associated with smallsats, NASA is also working to standardize its management practices associated with smallsat missions to reduce the administrative burdens associated with them in comparison to larger, more traditional space missions.
  • The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has awarded a $20 million contract to Planet, a startup currently building out a constellation of imagery smallsats in low earth orbit.  This allows NGA to obtain imagery of at least 85 percent of the Earth’s landmass every 15 days from Planet.  The imagery has many operational uses, including environmental monitoring, augmenting higher resolution capabilities, change detection, and answering intelligence questions.
  • NGA is partnering with the General Services Administration to develop an efficient, single point to access and purchase commercially-provided imagery, data, analytical capabilities, and services.  This effort, labeled the Commercial Initiative to Buy Operationally Responsive GEOINT (CIBORG), will connect with trusted commercial sources and match products to intelligence-user needs and match the right capability against the right intelligence problem.  CIBORG is also designed to grow into a "good for Government" initiative, allowing other U.S. government users to order and share data through this process. 
  • The Department of Commerce is elevating the role of the Office of Space Commerce to reflect the growing importance of commercial space as a driver of economic growth, productivity, and job creation.  This will enable the Office’s Director to advise the Secretary of Commerce on commercial space issues and the office to coordinate policy on critical issues such as licensing, export controls, export promotion, and open data.  The Director’s statutory role is to act as an advocate and ombudsman for the commercial space industry within the Federal government, and the Director will work with Federal agencies to help them take full advantage of the new capabilities (including smallsats, constellations of smallsats, dedicated launch capability for smallsats, and data analytics) that are being developed by the private sector.
  • Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) awarded the first Commercial Weather Data Pilot program contracts to smallsat-constellation operators GeoOptics, Inc. and Spire Global, Inc. to provide space-based, radio-occultation data for the purpose of demonstrating data quality and potential value to NOAA’s weather forecasts and warnings.
  • The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) is releasing satellite datasets as part of two prize-driven challenges to achieve breakthroughs in the analysis of overhead imagery.  The Multi-View Stereo 3D Mapping Challenge invites researchers and entrepreneurs to generate accurate 3D point clouds from multi-view satellite imagery, while the Functional Map of the World Challenge will invite solvers to identify building functions and land use.

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