Is space a good investment?

Space is an expensive, and uncertain, environment to work in, and decisions to invest in space technology and missions are frequently questioned in the current global economic climate. Headline figures of tens of millions, or billions, do little to counter the accusations that there are more appropriate things to be investing in. Is the cost of investing in space worthwhile?

Image of East Devon, UK taken by Landsat 8 on 4th November 2013.  The River Exe flows from top to bottom and the River Teign from left to right. Plumes of suspended sediment are clearly visible following periods of heavy rainfall in late October and early November 2013.  Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

Image of East Devon, UK taken by Landsat 8 on 4th November 2013.
The River Exe flows from top to bottom and the River Teign from left to right. Plumes of suspended sediment are clearly visible following periods of heavy rainfall in late October and early November 2013.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

Last week the Landsat Advisory Group, a sub-committee of the US Government’s National Geospatial Advisory Committee, issued a report looking at the economic value of Landsat data to America. As Landsat data is freely available, quantifying the value of that data isn’t easy; and the Group approached it by considering the cost of providing alternative solutions for Landsat data.

They considered sixteen applications, linked to US Government departments, which use Landsat data. These ranged from flood mitigation, shoreline mapping and coastal change; through forestry management, waterfowl habitats and vineyard management; to mapping, wildfire assessment and global security support. The report estimated that these sixteen streams alone produced savings of between $350 million and $436 million to the US economy. The report concluded that the economic value of just one year of Landsat data far exceeds the multi-year total cost of building, launching, and managing Landsat satellites and sensors.

This conclusion was interesting given reports in 2014 that Landsat 8 cost around $850m to build and launch, a figure which will increase to almost $1 billion with running costs; and that NASA were estimating that Landsat 9 would cost in excess of the $650m budget they had been given. These figures are significantly in excess of the quantified figures in the Advisory Group report; however work undertaken by US Geological Survey in 2013 identified the economic benefit of Landsat data for the year 2011 is estimated to be $1.70 billion for US users, and $400 million for international users.

The discrepancy between the two figures is because the Advisory Group did not include private sector savings; nor the fact that Landsat data is also collected, and disseminated, by the European Space Agency; nor did it include unquantified societal benefits or contribution to scientific research. For example, it highlighted that humanitarian groups use Landsat imagery to monitor human rights violations at low cost and without risking staff entering dangerous, and often inaccessible, world regions.

Last week also demonstrated the uncertain side of space, with the discovery of the Beagle-2 spacecraft on the surface of Mars. The UK led probe mission was assumed to have crash landed on Christmas Day 2003, however recent images indicate it landed successfully but its solar panels did not unfurl successfully. The Beagle 2 discovery has obvious echoes with the recent shady site of the Philea comet landing, and demonstrates that space exploration is a risky business. Given the Beagle 2 mission cost £50 million and the Philea mission was estimated to cost around region of €1.4 billion, is the cost of investing in space worthwhile?

Consider satellite television, laptops, smoke detectors, tele-medicine, 3D graphics and satellite navigation – all of these developments came through the space industry, and so now think about the jobs and economic activity generated by these sectors. Working in space is expensive and challenging, but it’s precisely because of this that the space industry is innovative and experimental. The space sector works at the technological cutting edge, investment in space missions benefits and enhances our life on earth. So if anyone ever asks whether space is a good investment, tell them about the financial benefits of Landsat, the development of laptops, the number of lives saved by smoke detectors or the humanitarian support provided to Amnesty International.

America’s Roadmap for Earth Observations

Have you all been keeping up with your reading of policy documents issued by the Executive Office of the President of the United States? If not, you may have missed their National Plan for Civil Earth Observations (EO), issued a couple of weeks ago. Given the US Government is the largest provider of EO data in the world this is important for everyone working in the field, particularly as it estimates that EO activities are worth $30 billion to the US economy.

The National Plan builds on the US National Strategy for Civil Earth Observations issued in 2013; such national Earth observations strategies aren’t unusual, the UK has issued two in recent years with the UK Space Agency Earth Observation Strategy in October 2013 and the Department of Energy and Climate Change Earth Observation Strategy in June 2012. However, what makes the National Plan more interesting, and valuable, is that it ranks US priorities for civil EO together with the actions they intend to take to deliver them.

Landsat 8 showing London, data courtesy of the USGS

Landsat 8 showing London, data courtesy of the USGS

The plan identifies five priorities, with the top two focussing on achieving continuity of long-term sustained EO. The number one priority is to maintain observations considered vital to public safety; national economic and security interests; and critical to scientific research; this includes the continuity of Landsat multispectral information, the GPS network and a variety of weather, land and ocean measurements. Second priority is observations focussing on changes in climate, greenhouse gases, biodiversity and ecosystems often in collaboration with international partners. The third priority surrounds short-term experimental observations of less than seven years duration, such as measurements for specific scientific research, first-of-their-kind observations, innovations and proof of concept work. The final two priorities are around improvements to service-life extensions; and the assessment, and prioritization, of EO systems.

  1. Whilst the priorities are interesting, far more interesting, and valuable, are the eight actions the US Government intends to take to deliver these priorities:
    Increase the integration of EO data, and making data available to everyone irrespective of the original purpose. By eliminating the silo approach to data, it will offer greater potential for innovative research.
  2. Implement the Big Earth Data Initiative (BEDI) to provide uniform methodologies and practices for the handling of EO data to enable a wider group of users, without specialist knowledge, to find, obtain, evaluate, understand, compare and use new and legacy data.
  3. Increase efficiency and cost savings through streamlining processes, coordinated acquisition of data, cooperation and collaborative working with commercial and non- US owned satellites.
  4. Improve spatial resolution, temporal cycle, sample density and geographic coverage of observation networks with both new observation systems and technical upgrades.
  5. Maintain the physical, computing, communication and human infrastructure required to deliver EO.
  6. Encourage private companies to invest in the space sector. However, it makes clear that it intends to maintain the principles of open data sharing which will make it interesting to see how, and where, private firms will get returns on their investments.
  7. Continuing to work with other international bodies and space agencies to provide access to greater EO data and supporting collaborative research.
  8. Using citizen science, crowdsourcing and private sector initiatives to leverage EO data innovations.

The National Plan is a detailed document and it will be interesting to see the UK Space Agency, or perhaps the European Space Agency, version. Any EO business working in, or with firms in, the US needs to begin planning for these developments. Would does your business need to do to reposition your core competences, skill base or infrastructure to be able to exploit these opportunities? Even if you don’t currently work in the US take note, the journey outlined will impact the EO community.