A key trend in the theme of disruption is the proliferation of small satellites, which include a range of classes with low size and mass, typically 500 kg or less. With new operators planning to launch hundreds of such spacecraft in the coming years, smallsats are projected to have a lasting impact on space activities. Beyond technological innovations, the rise of smallsats has been marked by tensions in the larger policy framework governing space activities. In particular, the potential for smallsats to assume critical tasks in earth observations has raised questions that touch on issues as diverse as defining stakeholders’ roles and responsibilities, oversight and licensing, and safety of space operations. The solution to many of these issues requires policy, law, and regulatory mechanisms and is critical to balance the benefits and challenges of this technology.
A good case study to examine the variety of issues involved is the emergence of commercial providers seeking to supplement earth observation research and operational needs in the United States. The integration of commercially provided data sources into what have traditionally been government-run data flows, such as weather, appears particularly attractive in an era of budgetary constraints. For supporters of this shift, few issues have caused more headaches than data-sharing policies and their perceived risks to the burgeoning commercial weather data market. A more holistic approach to data issues could help inform ongoing discussions about how best to take advantage of the smallsat disruption in the United States and abroad.
Beyond a demonstration platform
Smallsats have been around for at least 30 years, but new manufacturing techniques and off-the-shelf technology solutions are transforming them to be the go-to option for established and emerging actors alike. The number of smallsats launched in the past few years seems modest when compared to the planned constellations: a 2015 Euroconsult report estimates 100 smallsat launches per year in the next five years, a two-thirds increase in the average annual rate of the previous decade.
No longer simple demonstration platforms, smallsats are being tasked for missions spanning research, operations, and services. This is due to characteristics like higher revisit time, shorter development cycles, and lower launch costs than conventional larger satellites. In the plans of about 20 US-based remote sensing smallsat companies, potential users see more real-time data for improved weather forecasts and sustained, multi-sensor observations for greater geospatial intelligence at the local and national level. Changing government demand is also helping along the push of this technology.
Data policy pieces
The influx of new sources of information about the planet necessarily prompts questions about the policies governing their use. These questions should be examined from multiple angles.
? Accessibility: Clarity of access is a key requirement for efficient data utilization. Today’s most valuable geospatial products and services are often created by combining multiple datasets from a variety of sources around the globe. However, the combination of multiple datasets adds several layers of complexity, even before including commercially owned sources. At a glance, high-level statements of open data access may seem straightforward and sufficient to meet objectives.
However, in a recent survey of over 20 legal and policy documents related to earth observations data published in Space Policy, Ray Harris and Ingo Baumann found a lack of consistency in the use of the terms “free,” “full,” and “open,” and numerous, often undefined, exceptions. As the Centre for Spatial Law and Policy’s Kevin Pomfret argued in a recent geospatial law seminar, data policy issues inherently include difficult legal questions. As complex access rules are tested and applied, and different licensing structures are combined to account for new, commercial data sources, legal and practical uncertainties could severely hinder data utilization. Consequently, clarity of data access should be an essential consideration for providers of data, value-added services, and geospatial information platforms.
? Reusability: Potential reuse restrictions placed on commercial raw data and models have prompted heated debates in the United States — particularly with respect to meteorological data, historically shared globally among all users. Resolving the legal limitations on the commercialization of government weather satellites, as well as the interpretation of US adherence to the World Meteorological Organization’s Resolution 40 requiring full and open sharing of “essential” data, will be needed to determine the viability of this emerging market. However, the consequences of this discussion on the existing commercial weather prediction sector are less understood. The multi-billion dollar private weather industry in the US depends on the rapid release of data acquired from government-operated sensors to develop tailored weather products and services. The economic impact of this sector has motivated others to adopt commercialization as a goal of investing in government earth observation programs and to promulgate open access data policies, such as the European Union’s Copernicus program.
? Archiving: Over four decades of sustained earth observations have created an invaluable repository of insight about our changing planet. When combined with other kinds of information, these historical datasets play a key role in scientific research and in applications as diverse as public health, urban planning, and education. While several commercial smallsat operators have expressed a commitment to full data access to researchers and educational institutions, questions related to data archiving have not been sufficiently addressed. For example, in the medium and long-term, new and more frequent observations of key atmospheric variables will be significant additions to climate data records required by researchers and the emerging climate services market. Once weather data complete the operational stage, data policies should ensure that these remain discoverable and usable for trend analysis, thus requiring discussion of practical aspects like metadata standards, and database maintenance practices.
Evolving data policy
This brief discussion suggests a number of data policy-related issues raised by smallsats that should be integrated into ongoing discussions within government, industry and academia. True stakeholder engagement increases the likelihood that spillover effects are taken into account, such as benefits that go beyond those initially served by existing policies.
The international dimension of this conversation is particularly relevant. The outcome of the data policy debates, which could yield new access rules for some users, may require updating existing bilateral and multilateral data sharing agreements. Perhaps more importantly, these decisions may inform similar policies in other countries where smallsats are also booming. Considering the larger effects of setting new precedents presents an opportunity to evolve data policy to meet the growing demand while maintaining the positive trend of collaboration to address-shared challenges.