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NOAA behind on remote-sensing satellite policy overhaul

Tahara Dawkins, the director of NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs Office, says remote-sensing licensing applications are averaging 212 days to complete, instead of the 120 days required by a 2003 law.

WASHINGTON —  The director of NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs Office said Jan. 31 the agency is behind schedule on updating U.S. remote-sensing policy to ensure regulations keep pace with a rapidly evolving commercial satellite industry. 

NOAA’s Tahara Dawkins said Jan. 31 that the agency is still working on completing a report required under the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which set a Nov. 25, 2016 deadline for outlining regulations suitable for an industry that’s grown to include a proliferation of low-cost small satellites and ventures aiming to mine asteroids. 

Dawkins did not say when NOAA would complete the congressionally mandated report. She did, however, discuss the challenges the agency is facing by trying to work with a 25-year old statute and other dated policies that didn’t predict today’s dynamic commercial environment.

“Our statute right now dates back to 1992 when this industry was totally different,” Dawkins said at the SatSummit conference here, referring to the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 that put the Commerce Department, through NOAA, in charge of licensing private remote-sensing satellite systems. “We are looking at updating that. We will also update the national space policy, and our office is rewriting our regulations. This is all happening concurrently, and hopefully we will be able to be forward thinking enough to regulate this industry more effectively and efficiently for the next 10 to 20 years.”

The 2003 U.S. Commercial Remote Sensing Policy gives NOAA 120 days to review licenses for new remote sensing satellite systems. Those licenses have to go through an interagency examination that seeks to balance commercial viability with national security, foreign policy and international obligations. Dawkins said that process includes the Defense, State, Treasury and Interior departments plus the the White House in the event of an impasse. Up until 2011, Dawkins said, NOAA was “pretty good” at collaborating with all of the other parties in the interagency process, averaging 145 days to process a license request — still behind schedule, but not unreasonably so.

The proliferation of startups proposing large constellations of imaging satellites over the last several years has increased NOAA’s turnaround time by 50 percent or more on average, according to Dawkins.

“There has been a huge paradigm shift in this industry. From 2011 to present, we are averaging about 212 days, with a lot of them going over 300,” she said, adding that that average licensing process would be longer if not for the shorter time needed for university cubesat programs.

U.S. companies are also proposing satellite systems equipped with cloud-penetrating synthetic aperture radar, creating new challenges for licensing authorities.

“From the inception of my office in 1996 to 2010, we only had two non-[electro-optical] licenses,” Dawkins said. “From 2010 to current, we have had seven. This is a big question within our interagency: how do we get these through a process of 120 days [for] imagery that hasn’t been tested? We don’t know what the risks are to national security. We don’t know what it’s going to do to our national security posture. How do we review something that’s not out there?”

NOAA requires a remote-sensing license for any company launching a spacecraft capable of imaging Earth, even if taking pictures of the planet is not the intended purpose of the spacecraft. Orbital ATK’s satellite-servicing subsidiary Space Logistics, for example, had to obtain a license from NOAA for the cameras used to dock its Mission Extension Vehicles (MEVs) with other spacecraft just because they might catch a glimpse of the Earth. Asteroid mining and other nontraditional commercial ventures are running into the same unexpected red tape. 

Dawkins said NOAA is grappling with whether remote-sensing space law was intended for beyond-Earth-observing applications like asteroid mining and, if so, which agencies should have regulatory jurisdiction. She said these discussions are going on “at the highest levels of the government.”

Source: Space News

NOAA behind on remote-sensing satellite policy overhaul

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