One of Spire's CubeSats, under construction. Image credit: Spire

Feb 1, 2015 Spire to launch high resolution weather constellation

Sen—Spire, the San Francisco based CubeSat startup company, have announced their plans to shake up the weather prediction business with a fleet of shoebox sized weather satellites.

The small company, headed by CEO Peter Platzer, wants to make errors in weather prediction a thing of the past, by collecting more weather data than ever before, enabling better weather modelling and more accurate predictions.

Currently, all of the world’s weather data collected from orbit is collected by about 20 aging car-sized satellites which collectively harvest 2000 data readings per day. Because these satellites are so old, they also have ancient computer CPUs on board—many rely on the 486 architecture from the early 1990s.

Spire’s fleet of CubeSats aims to gather 5 times more data, collecting 10,000 data readings per day and with modern CPUs that are found in today’s smartphones (which are significantly more powerful than the 486 chipsets). Given the cost and almost disposable nature of CubeSats, Spire plans to upgrade their fleet every 2 years in order to keep ahead of changes in technology. This will mean an increase of 750% in computing power with every new generation of satellites (in accordance with Moore’s Law).

According to Spire, these older weather satellites are already running on borrowed time as it is, with many still functioning beyond their designed operational life span. Many of these satellites could simply cease operation at any time, and it is predicted that such an outage could leave America (and other countries) with critical gaps in their weather data for up to 5 years! Given that 30% of the US GDP ($5.7 trillion USD) is closely tied in with how the weather and climate behaves, Spire sees the need for urgent action in this area.

The key to Spire’s technology is a process known as “GPS Radio Occultation” which is a form of atmospheric sounding. The changes in the GPS signals are measured after they have passed through the atmosphere, giving highly accurate information on temperature, moisture, density and other data points allowing better prediction capabilities. Additionally, there are two further benefits from operating an entire fleet of weather satellites. The frequency of passes over the Earth is increased and also, redundancy is added to the network, meaning that if one satellite fails, another will replace it, ensuring integrity of the network.

The satellites are already designed and are scheduled for launch later in 2015.

Who is Spire? Spire began life as the “ArduSat” project, under the company name “NanoSatisfi”. ArduSat was a rather successful Kickstarter campaign which was formed with the goals of putting an Arduino powered CubeSat into orbit for educational purposes. The ArduSat team had all met while studying a master’s program at the International Space University, near Strasbourg, France. 

Having asked for $35,000 from the Kickstarter community, the project exceeded that goal with a whopping $106,630 dollars being pledged by backers allowing not one but two satellites to be built instead. Consequently, the 2 ArduSats were the first open-source satellites built and launched with the intention of providing public access to space.

In November 2013, both ArduSat-1 and ArduSat-X were deployed from the International Space Station becoming the first US commercial satellites deployed from the ISS.

Since then, NanoSatisfi has changed its name to Spire, and has branched off away from STEM education and into data collection, offering a variety of services ranging from the monitoring of illegal fishing to maritime tracking and now to weather monitoring.

The ArduSat brand still remains active as the educational partner of Spire. As well as the rebranding, Spire last year received a massive cash injection to the tune of $25 million USD in series A funding to enable growth of the company.

Given the recent opening of their new Singapore office (which they kindly gave me a tour of last week) and today’s announcement of their game-changing weather monitoring platform, I would say that they are putting that money to good use.