Costs and Uses of Remote Sensing Satellites

RCED-83-111: Published: Mar 4, 1983. Publicly Released: Mar 4, 1983.

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GAO was requested to provide background information concerning a possible transfer of the Federal Government's civil remote sensing satellites, which include both Landsat and weather satellites, to the private sector. Specifically, GAO determined: (1) what Landsat and weather satellite data the various Federal agencies are using and how much they are paying for the service; (2) whether the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) fiscal year (FY) 1983 budget estimate that Federal agencies will pay approximately $10 million for Landsat services is well supported; (3) the total Federal investment in Landsat and the weather satellites; and (4) what market studies have been done to determine the feasibility of a profitmaking satellite system.

GAO found that, in FY 1982, the Federal Government received about 25 percent of the 68,000 Landsat products distributed worldwide. Some Federal agencies have paid for the data and other agencies received data at virtually no cost. At the time NOAA prepared its FY 1983 budget, the $9.8 million estimate appeared reasonable. However, according to NOAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Federal Government's total cost for building and launching the current satellite system will reach almost $1 billion by the end of FY 1983. The cost for Landsat is approximately $573.1 million; the cost for the weather satellites $421.7 million. GAO reviewed five federally sponsored evaluations of the usefulness of earth sensing satellites. The studies identified present and potential uses of satellite data and estimated their value. The value estimates, which ranged from about $40 million to $35 billion annually, were rough and depended upon many assumptions. The high estimate included worldwide benefits while the low estimate represented only U.S. benefits. None of the studies provided a sufficient basis for determining the current feasibility of a profitmaking system.

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