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Federal, private work spurs Earth observation advancements

Earth observation is a primary driver of the global space economy and something federal agencies are partnering with commercial companies to advance.

The commercial sector is advancing U.S. leadership in outer space, particularly when it comes to Earth observation technologies.

That's according to several witnesses testifying during Thursday's U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing. While federal entities have long used Earth observation tools to monitor changes on the planet's surface through the Landsat Science program, new technologies developed by the private sector enable enhanced observation data analysis and sharper, more detailed Earth imagery. Earth observation identifies areas damaged by natural disasters, enables aviation safety and contributes to resource and air quality monitoring.

Earth observation is a primary driver of the burgeoning space industry, which financial institution reports indicate will top $1 trillion in global value by 2040. In 2021 alone, the global space industry hit $469 billion -- mostly generated by the commercial sector, according to a report from the Space Foundation, a space economy advocacy group based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The private sector working alongside NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey has helped push Earth observation one step further, said Waleed Abdalati, director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado and a witness at the hearing.

"The work the private sector has brought forth has been innovative in developing ways of cost-effectively carrying those observations forward," he said.

Future of U.S. Earth observation

A coordinated effort between the federal government and the commercial sector will drive the space industry forward, Abdalati said.

"This combined approach is important for continuing to develop new technological and scientific innovations," he said.

Indeed, many commercial sector businesses are already working with federal agencies, such as space technology company Maxar Technologies, which is based in Westminster, Colo. The company operates a fleet of high-resolution Earth observation satellites.

Testifying during the hearing, Maxar Technologies president and CEO Daniel Jablonsky said commercial satellites support civil and national security missions and provide a host of data enabling multiple applications. For example, Jablonsky said Google Maps uses Maxar satellite images in its application.

The work the private sector has brought forth has been innovative in developing ways of cost-effectively carrying those observations forward.
Waleed AbdalatiDirector, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado

"Geospatial data is the bedrock for many businesses and operations that generate significant value for the economy," he said.

Earth observations will continue to play a significant role in the future, providing key insights into challenges like climate change, said Kate Calvin, chief scientist at NASA and a witness at the hearing.

Calvin said NASA is continuing to innovate and develop new Earth observation technologies providing more comprehensive views of the planet. NASA's EMIT, an Earth observation tool installed on the International Space Station in July, helped NASA detect the presence of methane, a greenhouse gas. Using EMIT, the agency identified 50 super-emitters on Earth, she said.

At the same time, NASA continues to work with the commercial sector to further its data collection. Earlier this year, NASA announced a new contract for commercial data acquisition with GHGSat, which uses satellites to identify methane emissions. NASA contracts with several commercial data vendors, including Maxar.

"GHGSat will provide their data to NASA for evaluation to determine the utility for advancing NASA's science application goals," Calvin said.

Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.

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