The Law Behind the NOAA Open Letter to Google Lunar X PRIZE Participants

July 28, 2008 at 11:22 am | Posted in Remote Sensing Law, Remote Sensing Law Current Events | 2 Comments

by Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz with the blog faculty

Res Communis received 10,000+ hits for its post, NOAA Open Letter to Google Lunar X PRIZE Participants. There is enormous interest in the fact that, as the letter says, “if your [X Prize] team is based wholly or partially in the USA, you may need to apply for a license from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).” Along with the hits, Res Communis received numerous comments about why this is the case. With interest being so high, we’ve decided to provide a general response on the blog.
The primary reasons behind the law are to advance the principle of open access to data by implementing the nondiscriminatory access policy and for the U.S. to meet its international legal obligations. It also addresses national security and other interests.
The nondiscriminatory access policy began in 1972 with the launch of the Earth Resources Technology Satellite, later renamed Landsat 1. The policy was formulated to ensure open access to sensed data and to assuage the concerns of the rest of the world that the satellite would be used against them in the form of economic or other espionage. Not all nations agreed that openness of information was a good idea and others feared the satellites being used against them. The nondiscriminatory access policy stated that access to imagery would be available to all, on a nondiscriminatory basis, and any nation could directly download the data, if they also implemented the nondiscriminatory access policy. Canada was the first to do so, followed by numerous nations since then.

Over the years, the policy evolved and has been adopted by all remote sensing nations and is, arguably, the most important part of the U.N. The Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space. The nondiscriminatory access policy still applies to the Landsat satellites and a modified version can apply to non-federal, civil satellites. How, and to what degree, is determined on a case-by-case basis.
The licensing process also serves as an interface mechanism between the U.S. and its obligations at international law. The United States, along with other spacefaring nations, is a State Party to the Outer Space Treaty. Under Article 6 of that Treaty, signatories, including the U.S., have the obligation to supervise and authorize all of their non-governmental space actors. Other signatories, including Canada, France, and Germany also have their own national analogs to the U.S. licensing process.
The entire subject of licensing, the application of the nondiscriminatory access policy, and related issues is much more complex than this post can address. Suffice it to say, it is a long-standing and widely applied practice.

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  1. […] According to Gabrynowicz: The policy was formulated to ensure open access to sensed data and to assuage the concerns of the rest of the world that the satellite would be used against them in the form of economic or other espionage. Not all nations agreed that openness of information was a good idea and others feared the satellites being used against them. The nondiscriminatory access policy stated that access to imagery would be available to all, on a nondiscriminatory basis, and any nation could directly download the data, if they also implemented the nondiscriminatory access policy. Canada was the first to do so, followed by numerous nations since then. […]

  2. […] Law Behind the NOAA Open Letter to Google Lunar X Prize Participants, Res Communis, July 28, 2008. […]


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