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Global Media and Communications Watch The International Legal Blog for the Tech, Media and Telecoms Industry
Posted in Policy & Regulation, Technology Photo of Tony Lin

White House Announces Big Initiative to Support Small Satellites

Last month, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (“OSTP”) announced the “Harnessing the Small Satellite Revolution” initiative.  OSTP committed to working with NASA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce, and other Federal agencies to promote and support both government and private use of small satellites for remote sensing, communications, science, and the exploration of space.  As part of the initiative, OSTP identified several steps that these Federal agencies will take or have taken recently to foster innovation in the development and use of smallsat technologies.

For example, NASA intends to provide $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.   These data buys in the near term will focus on Earth observation data, such as land imaging and radio occultation data.  NASA will also review its space mission to determine which science and exploration needs could be met more effectively using smallsats, rather than more costly, conventional satellite systems.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently awarded the first commercial weather data pilot program contracts to smallsat-constellation operators, Spire Global, Inc. and GeoOptics, Inc.  Under those contracts, the two satellite operators will provide space-based, radio-occultation data to demonstrate the quality and value of space-based data in assisting NOAA’s mission to provide weather forecasts and warnings.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (“NGA”) front awarded a $20 million imaging contract to smallsat operator Planet Labs, Inc.  More broadly, NGA will partner with the General Services Administration to develop a single point of contact 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 pair the needs of government users with the right commercial smallsat product or service.

Several agencies will also establish initiatives or elevate existing offices to promote smallsats and the commercial space sector at large.  NASA will create the Small Spacecraft Virtual Institute at Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley early in 2017.  The Virtual Institute will provide technical knowledge in the small spacecraft technology field and will act within NASA to promote relevant programs, guidance, opportunities, and best practices.  NASA is also working to standardize its management practices associated with smallsat missions to reduce the administrative burdens associated with them.  The Department of Commerce will elevate the role of the Office of Space Commerce to advise the Secretary of Commerce on commercial space issues and to work with Federal agencies to take advantage of new commercial space capabilities, including capabilities derived from smallsats.

All of these smallsat initiatives will present new opportunities for smallsat providers to interface with, and obtain support from, the Federal government.  These formal programs also indirectly support the ongoing voluntary efforts of the smallsat industry, through the Commercial Smallsat Spectrum Management Association (“CSSMA”), to pre-coordinate spectrum use with Federal agencies.  Those individuals interested in participating in the CSSMA pre-coordination meetings should consider attending the next meeting tentatively scheduled at the Silicon Valley office of Hogan Lovells on February 9th, 2017.  Interested parties may also want to attend the Smallsat Symposium that will be held in the area from February 6th – 8th.  We hope to see you there.