EO Market Is a-Changin’

Artist's rendition of a satellite - paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – paulfleet/123RF Stock Photo

Historically, if you wanted satellite Earth Observation (EO) data your first port of call was usually NASA, or NOAA for meteorological data, and more recently you’d look at the European Union’s Copernicus programme. Data from commercial operators were often only sought if the free-to-access data from these suppliers did not meet your needs.
However, to quote Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’. NASA, NOAA and Copernicus are buying, or intending to buy, data from commercial operators.

However, as with many activities there are often precedents. For example, the SeaWiFS mission was built to NASA’s specifications and launched in 1997. It was owned by the commercial organisation Orbital Sciences Corporation and NASA conducted a ‘data-buy’. They’ve moved back in this direction last month as NASA issued a Request for Information for US companies interested in participating in the Earth Observations from Private Sector Small Satellite Constellations Pilot. The aim of this programme is to identify commercial organisations collecting EO data relating to Essential Climate Variables (ECV), and then to evaluate whether this would be a cost effective approach to gathering data rather than, or alongside, launching their own satellites.

To interest NASA the companies need to have a constellation of at least three satellites in a non-geostationary orbits, and the ECV dataset will need to include details of both instrument calibration and processing techniques used. Initially, NASA plans to provide this data to researchers to undertake the evaluation. According to Space News, 11 responses to the request had been received. Discussions will take place with responding companies over the next month and it’s anticipated orders will be placed in March 2018.

NOAA is another US agency looking to the private small satellite sector through their Commercial Weather Data pilot programme. To supplement their own data collections they’ve already purchased GPS radio occupation data and are planning to buy both microwave sounding and radiometry data.

Not everyone is aware that the Copernicus Programme also purchases data from commercial sources as part of its Contributing Missions Programme. Essentially, if data is not available for any reason from the Sentinel satellites, then the equivalent data is sought from one of 30 current contributing missions which include other international partners such as NASA, but also commercial providers.

Whilst part of the drive behind this approach is to ensure data continuity, in the US the backdrop has a more long term concern with President Trump’s intention to move NASA away from EO to focus efforts on deep space exploration. It’s not been fully confirmed yet, but there is due to be a Congress budget discussion later this week and if approved it could mean the loss of the following four NASA missions:

• Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite
• Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3)
• Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder
• Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR)

Whilst buying data from commercial providers may offer opportunities, it also has a number of challenges including how to buy this whilst maintaining their commitment to free-to-access data, and with the shorter lifespans of small satellites the increased pressure on calibration and validation work.

It’s clear that things are evolving in the EO market and the private sector is coming much more to the fore as a primary data supplier to researchers, national and international bodies.

High Noon for ESA Funding

Sentinel-2 Image of Plymouth from 2016. Data courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

Sentinel-2 Image of Plymouth from 2016. Data courtesy of Copernicus/ESA.

The future direction of the space industry in Europe is set to be debated at the European Space Agency (ESA) Ministerial Council taking place at the start of December. It will look at the Space Strategy for Europe which we reviewed last week, and crucially will set ESA’s budget for the few next years.

The Council is the governing body of ESA and each of the 22 member states is represented, plus Canada. The Council is chaired by ESA’s Director General Jan Woerner, and he gave a press briefing in Paris earlier this week in advance of the meeting.

Sadly, I was unable to go to France for the meeting; but luckily Peter B de Selding from Space News was there and produced an excellent article which highlighted the key points including:

  • ESA is seeking an €11 billion settlement
  • Concern over the Norway’s proposed 75% contribution reduction
  • The ExoMars Programme, which hit the headlines earlier this year when the Schiaparelli lander crashed on its descend to the Mars surface, has a funding gap of €400 million.
  • €800 million is being sought to continue the collaboration with NASA on the International Space Station until 2024

The headline message on money is clearly the requested €11 billion settlement. In 2016 the ESA budget was €5.25 billion, of which almost 30% was income from the European Union (EU), Eumetsat and other programmes. The remaining 70% came from the contributions of each member state and Canada, and it is these future contributions that will be discussed at the Ministerial. This year the biggest contributor was Germany (€872.6 m), followed by France (€844.5 m) and Italy (€512 m) – between them these three accounted for almost 60% of the ESA member state budget.

For us, Pixalytics and the UK, there were a couple of interesting points. Firstly, ESA’s Earth Observation Envelope Programmes (EOEP-5) has had a 12.5% funding cut reducing their budget down to €1.4 bn for the period 2017 – 2025. It’s not currently clear what impact this reduction will, or will not, have on existing and planned activities.

Secondly, and for the second week running the blog has had to mention the B word. We’ve previously written about the fact that ESA and the EU are different organisations, and that Brexit does not directly impact our involvement with ESA – a point reinforced by the Director General at the briefing.

Indirectly though, Brexit impacts, if not dominates, the political and financial landscape of the country and as such will have affected the discussions surrounding our ESA contribution commitment. For example:

  • Dropping Value Of Sterling: The pound has dropped by over 13% since the EU Referendum, significantly increasing the cost to the UK of our ESA contribution which was €13.2 m in 2016.
  • Budget Pressures: In addition to the drop in the pound, the UK Space Agency has to compete with every other Government Department for funding. Given the current austerity financial approach, coupled with the additional costs of dealing with Brexit, money is tight.
  • Space Industry Profile: Every industry is currently fighting to get their agenda’s onto Government Minister’s desk to ensure they get then ‘best deal from Brexit’. Space is no different. We may not have the London centre of the financial sector or the emotional impact of the farmers and fisherman, but we are a strong and important part of the economy.

We need Ministers to understand our industry, and to ensure that they support us as much as possible. This means, as we said last week, that we need to give a positive commitment to our ongoing involvement with ESA and a strong financial contribution at the Ministerial in Lucerne on the 1st and 2nd of December.

We await the outcome with interest!