NASA and the US Geological Survey operate the current satellite the seventh in the series. A draft invitation for bids from private companies to run the system is expected from NASA in the next few weeks, with a formal version due by the end of the year.
It didn’t work then, and it may not work now. That’s the message from some global-change researchers, who fear that privatization of the Landsat satellite system could drive up the price of images of the Earth’s surface, just as it did when the service was taken out of public hands in the 1980s.
Landsat satellites have photographed the Earth for 30 years, providing researchers with a valuable record of changes such as deforestation. NASA and the US Geological Survey operate the current satellite the seventh in the series, but Congress has repeatedly asked for its successor to be privatized. A draft invitation for bids to run the system is expected from NASA in the next few weeks, with the formal version due by the end of the year. Landsat was privatized in 1985, but a commercial market for its pictures failed to develop. Left to market forces, researchers ended up paying thousands of dollars for a single image. This inhibited wider scientific use of remote-sensing imagery, according to a 1997 National Academy of Sciences study, and was the reason that the government resumed control of Landsat in 1992. Costs have remained at a subsidized rate of $600 per image since Landsat 7’s launch in 1999.
The new Landsat contract will require the operator to supply the government with images of 30-metre resolution. Remote-sensing companies warn that there is insufficient commercial demand for such images, so the winning company may choose to use technology that can produce images of 10-metre resolution.
Without additional business, many Landsat users worry that the contractor will resort to high prices as a way to make ends meet. Ray Williamson, a remote-sensing policy expert at George Washington University in Washington DC, doubts that a commercial vendor can beat the current price of Landsat 7 images, and says that commercial clients are right to be concerned about the future.
If privatization fails again, some fear that the government could abandon its investment in Landsat altogether. Samuel Goward, a remote-sensing expert at the University of Maryland in College Park and chair of the Landsat science team, says that Congress has been very clear that it wants the next satellite to be commercially owned. “If there isn’t a business involvement, the mission itself may disappear,” he says.