Satellites come in all shapes and sizes. They can fit in your palm, or stretch the length of a school bus. From a single ounce to tens of thousands of pounds. The traditional satellite is a hulking, expensive piece of hardware. But new advancements have led to new classes of satellites – smallsats (I’m assuming the White House blog is talking about CubeSats here).

Today, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is announcing the “Harnessing the Small Satellite Revolution” initiative. With this new initiative, OSTP is partnering with NASA, and several other federal agencies to promote government and private use of affordable, high-tech satellites. Uses range from communications and imaging to science and the exploration of space.

As part of this new initiative, NASA will establish a Small Spacecraft Virtual Institute at Ames Research Center early next year. This will be a “one-stop shop” to provide government and private entities with the know-how in the new, exciting field of smallsats (CubeSats). This includes the best practices and the lessons learned from previous missions. No one does it better than NASA.

NASA also plans to propose up to $30 million to buy data from smallsats. One area NASA will focus on will be moderate-resolution land imaging and radio occultation data. $5 million of this $30 million will be set aside to help develop small spacecraft constellation technologies.

As I mentioned above, today’s initiative isn’t just for governments. Private companies are also playing a big role.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) awarded a $20 million contract to Planet, a startup with a smallsat (CubeSat) fleet already in orbit.

“This milestone is a humbling moment for us at Planet,” the company writes in a blog post. “Since launching our first satellite three years ago, our team has worked tirelessly towards our goal to image the entire Earth every day, and make global change visible, accessible, and actionable.”

Every 15 days, the NGA will receive imagery of more than 85% of the Earth’s landmass. Here’s the kind of quality Planet can provide.

NGA Headquarters from space

NGA Headquarters in Virginia captured on June 9th.

Head on over to Planet’s Instagram and be prepared to waste a few minutes. If the government funding ever runs out Planet, sell prints. These images are stunning.

#Singapore Strait—home to all boats great and small ⛵️⛴

A photo posted by Planet (@planetlabs) on

Planet’s stunning imagery is made possible with their Dove Satellites. It’s a 3U CubeSat (10 x 10 x 30 cm) weighing about 10 pounds.

Planet cubesat

Planet’s CubeSat in orbit (concept image).

Resolution comes out to about 3-5 meters depending on the altitude of the satellites in orbit. That brings houses, cars and ships into view. “But importantly, you can’t identify an individual human,” Planet’s Giselle Cheung says in the video below. Would you tell us if the satellite could, Giselle?

The new initiative also expands the role of the Office of Space Commerce. Commercial space is only going to continue to grow as current companies strive for bigger things and new companies pop up.

“This will enable the Office’s Director to advise the Secretary of Commerce on commercial space issues and the office to coordinate policy on critical issues such as licensing, export controls, export promotion, and open data.”

Space is no longer the domain of only NASA and other space agencies. Private companies see the potential dollar signs working in space offers, and will only push harder to get there. Initiatives like the one announced today highlights how the government is welcoming the private industry with open arms.



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