The commercial sector advances American leadership in outer space, particularly with respect to Earth observation technologies.
That’s according to several witnesses who testified at Thursday’s hearing of the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. While federal entities have long used Earth observation tools to monitor changes on the planet’s surface through the Landsat Science program, new technologies developed by the private sector allow for better analysis of observational data and sharper and more detailed Earth imagery. Earth observation identifies areas damaged by natural disasters, enables aviation safety and contributes to the monitoring of resources and air quality.
Earth observation is a key driver of the booming space industry, which financial institutions report will exceed $1 trillion in global value by 2040. In 2021 alone, the global space industry has reached $469 billion – mostly generated by the commercial sector, according to a report by the Space Foundation, a space-economics advocacy group based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The private sector working alongside NASA and the US Geological Survey has helped take Earth observation one step further, said Waleed Abdalati, director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado and witness in court.
“The work done by the private sector has been innovative in developing cost-effective ways to take these observations forward,” he said.
The Future of Earth Observation in the United States
A coordinated effort between the federal government and the commercial sector will drive the space industry forward, Abdalati said.
“This combined approach is important for continuing to develop new technological and scientific innovations,” he said.
Indeed, many companies in the commercial sector are already working with federal agencies, such as space technology company Maxar Technologies, based in Westminster, Colorado. The company operates a fleet of high-resolution Earth observation satellites.
Testifying at the hearing, Maxar Technologies President and CEO Daniel Jablonsky said that commercial satellites support civil and national security missions and provide a wealth of data enabling multiple applications. For example, Jablonsky said Google Maps uses Maxar satellite imagery in its app.
Walid AbdalatiDirector, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado
“Geospatial data is the foundation of many businesses and operations that generate significant value for the economy,” he said.
Earth observations will continue to play an important role in the future, providing key information on challenges such as climate change, said Kate Calvin, NASA chief scientist and witness at the hearing.
Calvin said NASA continues to innovate and develop new Earth observation technologies that provide more comprehensive views of the planet. NASA’s EMIT, an Earth observation tool installed on the International Space Station in July, helped NASA detect the presence of methane, a greenhouse gas. Using EMIT, the agency identified 50 super-emitters on Earth, she said.
At the same time, NASA continues to work with the commercial sector to deepen its data collection. Earlier this year, NASA announced a new commercial data acquisition contract with GHGSat, which uses satellites to identify methane emissions. NASA contracts with several commercial data providers, including Maxar.
“GHGSat will provide its data to NASA for evaluation to determine utility in advancing NASA’s scientific application goals,” Calvin said.
Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Before joining TechTarget, she was a generalist journalist for the Wilmington StarNews and crime and education reporter Wabash Plain Dealer.
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