Commercial weather satellite advocates want the United States and other countries to supplement data collected by government satellites, such as the multibillion-dollar JPSS spacecraft shown in this artist's rendering. Image credit: Ball Aerospace & Techn

Jun 9, 2015 Commercial satellite industry eyes the next big thing: the weather

Sen—Ambitious plans for high-speed Internet access and Earth imaging via privately owned satellite networks have dominated attention, and investment dollars, in the commercial space market, but a handful of U.S. space startups sees its future in an entirely different arena: selling data to weather forecasters.

"Everybody cares everyday about what the weather is," Anne Hale Miglarese, president and chief executive of PlanetiQ, told Sen. "In the not-too-distant future, you’re going to be able to get a personalized weather forecast."

The Maryland-based company is one of at least five firms developing satellites to collect precise information about temperature, pressure and humidity in the lowest layer of Earth’s atmosphere.

Two basic technologies are in the offing. PlanetiQ, for example, is developing an initial constellation of 12 low-orbiting satellites to measure slight changes in signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) and other navigation satellites as the radio waves pass through Earth’s atmosphere.

The PlanetiQ satellites will track navigation satellites edging toward and away from Earth’s horizon, relative to the PlanetiQ birds’ lines of sight. From that perspective, the GPS radio waves will pass through the atmospheric limb.

In addition to picking up occulted radio waves from GPS satellites, PlanetiQ intends to harvest signals from similar satellite networks owned by Europe, Russia and China.

“By 2020, with 12 satellites, we’ll get 32,000 occultations per day, equally surrounding the globe,” Miglarese said. “So as the number of emitters goes up or down, our ability to receive those signals goes up or down …. It’s a really elegent technology.”

GeoOptics, of Pasadena, Calif., is working on a similar system called the Community Initiative for Continuous Earth Remote Observation, or CICERO.

San Francisco-based Spire plans to launch a 20-member Cubesat constellation to measure GPS radio occulations this year.

Two other companies eyeing commercial weather satellites will use a different technology, called hyperspectral imaging, which measures light coming from Earth in different wavelengths in a single camera. The pixels are converted into three-dimensional data, providing what Utah-based Tempus Global Data calls a "CAT scan of the atmosphere". The company plans to fly its first sensor as a hosted payload aboard the AsiaSat 9 communications satellite flying in high, geostationary orbit.

Another company banking on hyperspectral imaging is Washington, DC-based HySpecIQ, which already is using the technology on airborne platforms to find and identify substances based on their unique chemical fingerprints. The company has ordered its first two satellites from Boeing.

“Weather data commercialization really is at a tipping point. A transformation is occurring … and part of that is driven by a growing commercial demand for data," Karen Dacres, general counsel for PlanetiQ said at the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space conference earlier this year.

"Everyone understands that while we can't control the weather, we can certainly help to manage the financial implications of what weather can do," she added.

PlanetiQ, which intends to launch its first two satellites in late 2016, may end up competing with the other startups, but for now the nascent industry is mostly united in efforts to break government monopolies on owning and operating weather satellites.

The biggest potential customer, and the one proving most difficult to crack, is the U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Unlike NASA, which took a proactive role and even invested in commercial companies interested in developing space transportation systems, NOAA has been slow to embrace the budding commercial weather satellite industry.

“It’s a cultural issue that they have not yet gone through,” said Miglarese, a former NOAA manager.

That may be changing. Bills pending before Congress would, among other initiatives, require NOAA to publish standards for commercial weather data and set up a pilot program to buy data commercially from at least one provider.

“Our argument is 'Augment your existing programs with commercial data',” Miglarese said.

NOAA is among about 14 weather forecasting research centers—and potential weather data customers—worldwide. In addition, there are about 10 commercial companies that run global weather models, Miglarese said.

“They want as much as this type as data as they can get,” she said. “I think weather is the next big market.”