CSDA (Commercial Smallsat Data Acquisition) of NASA
In December 2017, NASA's Earth Science Division (ESD) launched the Private-Sector Small Constellation Satellite Data Product Pilot Program CSDA with the objective of identifying, evaluating, and acquiring remote sensing imagery and data that supports NASA's Earth science research and application activities. 1)
Under the Pilot program, NASA awarded contracts to three companies — Planet; Maxar (formerly DigitalGlobe Inc.); and Spire Global Subsidiary, Inc. — that met the criteria within the public request for information (RFI). The small satellites were required to:
• have satellite constellations comprised of three or more satellites from U.S. companies operating and collecting data in a non-geostationary orbit (not following Earth's rotation);
• provide consistent, global coverage; and
• be designed and operated by non-governmental entities.
To evaluate the data, ESD identified 41 existing NASA-funded research projects that could potentially benefit from and had expertise to evaluate the imagery and/or data being considered for purchase. The pilot evaluation program took place from January 1 to December 16, 2019. The Program final report synthesizes and integrates the findings of research reports commissioned by the Pilot. Results are presented for each vendor separately. The report also includes recommendations that inform the way ahead for the program.
NASA-funded Principal investigators (PIs) from all six ESD Research and Analysis (R&A) interdisciplinary science focus areas, Applied Science program elements, and the Heliophysics Space Weather program examined and analyzed commercial datasets to help determine their utility for advancing NASA's science and applications development goals during the Pilot program.
Less than a third of the Pilot PIs evaluated multiple vendors for their projects. Spire data evaluation was largely performed orthogonally to the Planet and Maxar Technologies segments, because the latter were focused on satellite imagery.
In addition, CSDA funded two research teams specializing in satellite calibration and validation to independently assess the radiometric calibration and geolocation accuracy of vendor-provided multispectral imagery.
As a requirement of the program, the participating PIs were asked to submit two progress reports and a final evaluation on the usefulness of commercial data to meet the research and application needs. Findings from the PI reports indicated that the pilot program data are of sufficient quality for continued access and the pilot program has now transitioned to CSDA.
Pilot Program Activities
The ESD presented a Town Hall at AGU (PDF), Tuesday, December 10, 2019, and a Side Panel Discussion at AMS (PDF), Monday, January 13, 2020, to provide a status update on the pilot activity, answer questions about data access and on-ramps for other constellation owners, and answer questions from the community.
CSDA hosted a brown bag session to provide a summary of the Pilot findings, program update on how researchers can access commercial data, and a tutorial on the Smallsat Data Explorer (SDX) tool: CSDA Brown Bag (PDF).
CSDA Program Updates
• January 28, 2022: NASA intends to continue buying data gathered by commercial Earth-observation satellites. 2)
- "The Commercial SmallSat Data Acquisition program is now a sustainable program," Kevin Murphy, NASA Earth Science Division chief science data officer, said Jan. 27 at the American Meteorological Society annual meeting. "These commercial capabilities offer some cost-effective means to advance and extend our research and applications in conjunction with the data that we collect from NASA, our international partners and our other U.S. government agencies."
Figure 1: Planet Skysat image shows clouds of steam rising from the Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha'apai volcano as heat vaporizes a small crater lake on Janaury 7, 2021. NASA researchers are using this data to monitor activity on volcanic islands (image credit: Planet)
- NASA spends roughly $30 million a year evaluating commercial data sources and purchasing datasets. The increasing pace of commercial satellite launches is prompting NASA officials to look for ways to improve the data-acquisition process.
- "We've been basically looking at our entire existing program — from how we do the science, how we do the evaluation, how we set up the contracts, everything — to be more agile," said Will McCarty, NASA Commercial SmallSat Data Acquisition program scientist.
- NASA is working "to establish a continuous and repeatable process," Murphy added. "Predictability for industry is a key tenet of this program."
- NASA currently acquires data from Maxar Technologies, Planet, Spire Global and Teledyne Brown Engineering. In addition, NASA purchases high-resolution Digital Elevation Models produced by the EarthDEM Project, a collaboration that includes the University of Minnesota's Polar Geospatial Center, Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center, and the University of Illinois National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and based on Maxar satellite data.
- Through requests for information issued about once a year to once every 18 months, NASA identifies new or enhanced Earth-observation datasets. The next request for information is scheduled to be released in the spring.
- Currently, NASA is evaluating Earth-observation datasets shared in response to previous requests for information. For example, the space agency is evaluating potential applications for synthetic aperture radar data provided by Airbus U.S. NASA also is preparing to issue a call for principal investigators to evaluate the utility of optical imagery from BlackSky.
- NASA has a strong preference for working with U.S. companies, due in part to U.S. commercial remote sensing policy. "In the instance where capability does not exist in the U.S. industry, we certainly can look at capabilities that are outside," Murphy said.
- NASA is working "very closely" with other government agencies that acquire commercial remote sensing data including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), Murphy said.
- As part of the Commercial SmallSat Data Acquisition program, NASA negotiates end-user license agreements with companies chosen. At the outset of the program, NASA obtained some data through scientific case licenses with restrictions on publication.
- In recent years, NASA has pushed to expand access to "a broader community of users," Karen St. German, NASA Earth Science Division director, said Jan. 26 at the American Meteorological Society meeting NASA Earth Science Division Town Hall. "During our negotiations with commercial providers, we stress the importance of scientific reproducibility based on these commercial products and try to ensure that we can do that with at least a sampling of that information."
- NASA has a license to share Spire data with other U.S. government agencies and a license to share Planet data with federal civilian agencies including National Science Foundation researchers.
- To ensure companies still can sell their most valuable data, NASA generally acquires data with a 30 day latency.
- "We are not doing operational work here," Murphy said. "There are some instances where we would like slightly lower latency, but for the vast majority of our users the 30 day latency" is not a problem, he added.
• January 11, 2022: The Commercial Smallsat Data Acquisition (CSDA) Program 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. 3)
- 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. Going forward, NASA-funded researchers will be able to request access to the data from the commercial small satellite vendors. NASA will maintain the archive of data purchased from the vendors. Information about these vendors and data is available on the Commercial Datasets page.
The objectives of the program are to:
a) Establish continuous and repeatable processes to onramp new commercial data vendors and evaluate data for its potential to advance NASA's Earth science research and applications activities.
b) Enable the sustained use of purchased data for broader use and dissemination by NASA scientific community.
c) Ensure long-term data preservation through the establishment of data management processes and systems to support rapid evaluation, access and distribution of purchased data, and long-term access to purchased data for scientific reproducibility.
d) Coordinate with other U.S. Government agencies and international partners on the evaluation and scientific use of commercial data.
- The scientific community may use commercial datasets that are acquired by NASA for scientific purposes in adherence to vendor-specific terms and conditions. Currently, data acquired by NASA are available at no cost to NASA-funded researchers. Data from Spire Global Subsidiary, Inc., and data acquired through NASA's ESD collaboration with the International Space Station (ISS) from the Teledyne Brown Engineering, Inc. DLR Earth Sensing Imaging Spectrometer (DESIS) are available for all U.S. Government-funded researchers. Planet data are now available for U.S. Government Federal civil agencies and National Science Foundation funded researchers.
- Information about these vendors, user licenses, and data is available on the Commercial Datasets page. As additional commercial small satellite datasets are evaluated and acquired, those datasets will also be made available.
- As the capabilities of commercial satellite vendors grow, NASA's Earth Sciences Division (ESD) will continuously monitor the development of these companies and acquire relevant data to complement NASA's Earth observation data.
- Data that is favorably evaluated and deemed of sufficient value will be purchased by NASA for broader sustained use. Contract types will be selected on a vendor-by-vendor basis that are best suited to provide long-term access to data.
- To facilitate standard scientific collaborations, NASA will seek end-user license agreements (EULAs) to enable broad levels of dissemination and shareability of the commercial data with U.S. Government agencies and partners.
Onramp and Evaluation
- With the transition from pilot to ongoing data acquisition activities, ESD has established a process for identifying vendors and evaluating data.
Request for Information
- Every 12 to 18 months a RFI will be issued with the goal of identifying data that is potentially valuable for NASA's Earth science research and application activities. Vendors that meet the minimum qualifications of the RFI will be asked to submit a request for proposal (RFP) so NASA can enter into a blanket purchase agreement (BPA) to evaluate data over a 12– to 18–month period. All RFIs, RFPs, and BPAs will contain a standardized scientific use license to minimize the effort by NASA and confusion by users on how data can be used. The next RFI will be released in Q2 of CY 2022.
- Data from selected vendors will be evaluated by teams of PIs selected by NASA's ESD. The selected PIs will be required to submit a final report as part of the evaluation. The reported results will be summarized and reported out to ESD senior management. The summary report is not intended to be a consensus recommendation, but a document that takes into account the results of all team member evaluations.
- NASA will use the summary report, individual PI reports, and other information to determine the suitability of data from each vendor for future procurements. The summary report (PDF) is available.
- All data purchased during the evaluation phase will be preserved for long term data use by NASA for future use in accordance with the scientific use license.
1) "Private-Sector Small Constellation Satellite Data Product Pilot Evaluation," NASA Earth Data, last update: 8 December 2021, URL: https://earthdata.nasa.gov/esds/csdap/csdap-pilot-evaluation
2) Debra Werner, "NASA to continue buying Earth-observation datasets," Space News, 28 January 2022, URL: https://spacenews.com/nasa-continues-csda-program/
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).