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Hickenlooper, Cornyn Introduce Legislation to Expand Satellite Data Sharing

Aug 3, 2023

Earth observation data collected from satellites, including commercial SmallSats, are critical for a better understanding of our planet

WASHINGTON – Last week, U.S. Senators John Hickenlooper and John Cornyn introduced the Accessing Satellite Capabilities to Enable New Discoveries (ASCEND) Act, bipartisan legislation to codify NASA’s Commercial SmallSat Data Acquisition (CSDA) program and continue access to commercial small-satellite (SmallSat) datasets that prove crucial for Earth science research and applications.

“Satellites make it possible to more fully understand our planet. It’s a no-brainer to double down on our success by partnering with the private sector so that we can learn even more,” said Hickenlooper.

“Investing in satellite data and imagery gives us a deeper understanding of everything from agricultural yields to weather forecasting and disaster response,” said Cornyn. “This legislation would create a permanent program through NASA to expand the data pool available to us and build on prior success.”

Alongside the unprecedented growth of the commercial space industry, technological advancements have enabled the development of SmallSats with novel capabilities. There has been a sharp increase in the number of privately owned and operated satellites, including over 2300 SmallSats launched in 2022 alone. Commercial SmallSats provide high resolution data to complement the suite of Earth observations acquired by NASA, other U.S. Government agencies, and international partners. Earth observation data supplied by satellites in orbit provide important information for a variety of purposes, including increasing agricultural crop yields, informing forest conservation, improving disaster mitigation and response, forecasting space weather, advancing science, and more. 

NASA established CSDA as a pilot program in 2017 to identify and evaluate commercial capabilities, establish new processes to onramp vendors, and enable broad sharing and use of acquired data products. The CSDA pilot program proved to be a success, with participating scientists evaluating commercial datasets as useful and reliable for a variety of research topics. Today, five commercial vendors are providing 25 unique datasets to federal researchers through CSDA, and six more companies are currently being on-ramped by NASA. 

The ASCEND Act would permanently authorize CSDA within NASA to sustain and expand the program and continue to leverage the advancing capabilities in remote sensing offered by commercial vendors.

“Given the importance of space-based Earth observations in developing a comprehensive understanding of our changing environment and successfully meeting the challenges those changes bring, it is critical that the portfolio of Earth observation capabilities be as robust as possible.  The inclusion of commercial smallsat data as one component of that portfolio will provide critical information in a cost-effective manner,” said Waleed Abdalati, Director of CIRES (the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science) at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Specifically, the ASCEND Act will:

  • Establish CSDA as a permanent program within NASA’s Earth Science Division
  • Direct NASA to expand procurement licenses and provide federal agencies access to high-quality Earth remote sensing datasets and imagery
  • Promote the acquisition of new datasets for scientific and non-scientific applications
  • Require an annual report to Congress on the uses and impact of commercial data products and licensing agreements

For full text of the bill, click HERE. For a one-pager on the bill, click HERE.


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