Weather Satellites: Private Data Poised to Improve the Forecast
A new commercial weather satellite industry is ready to step in and address expected gaps in weather data by augmenting government systems with data that is less expensive, collected more frequently, and delivered more quickly than currently available data.
To understand how this situation came about, look no further than the evolution of commercial satellite imagery. After years of expensive government imaging systems, budget overruns, and launch delays, the federal government finally provided support for commercial companies to build and operate high-resolution imaging satellites, and sell imagery to public and private entities. As a result, government agencies secured a steady and affordable supply of mission-critical imagery, while widespread access to imagery led to rapid development of the commercial imaging industry and spurred innovative applications and countless derivative products.
“Commercial sales of atmospheric observations will follow the same path,” said PlanetiQ President and CEO Anne Hale Miglarese.”A mixture of private and public customers worldwide will create demand for better forecasting and new applications. One key difference from the commercialization of satellite imagery is that PlanetiQ is not asking governments for any money up front, only a commitment to buy the data once available if it meets specifications.”
PlanetiQ is positioned to become the first commercial company to launch a constellation of weather satellites and collect and sell weather data on a global scale. Its business model is based on a constellation of 18 small satellites, each about the size of a dishwasher (55–75 kg). Launch of the first four satellites is planned by the end of 2016, followed by eight more by the end of 2017, and an additional six by 2019. The constellation will be refreshed every few years.
PlanetiQ draws on a team with a proven track record for success. The founders and partners—Moog, Moog Broad Reach, and Millennium Engineering and Integration Company (MEI)—are industry leaders in designing, building and operating space sensors, systems and missions, with a combined experience of more than 70 years. Moog and MEI are both key investors and bring capabilities required for timely systems and data delivery. Broad Reach Engineering has been building sensors for 18 years and is known for being the industry’s “gold standard” in the design, manufacturing and deployment of GPS Radio Occultation (GPS-RO) sensors.
As Maryland-based PlanetiQ pursues funding for its satellite constellation, the reception among would-be government customers has been more positive outside of the U.S. “PlanetiQ is in the process of raising hundreds of millions of dollars in private capital by first proving there are willing customers,” said Miglarese. “Ultimately PlanetiQ will lower weather data costs, enable better forecasts, and innovate much more quickly than the traditional government model. The challenge is not the technology—the challenge is breaking the government monopoly to allow the commercial market to grow and meet the demand for improved weather services.”
Potential customers include global weather forecasting organizations such as the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), and national weather services in the UK, Canada, Australia, and the United States. GPS-RO data has already been shown to significantly improve the accuracy and lead time of global weather forecast models. Private companies in energy, agriculture, insurance, commodities and other industries also use weather data in models to improve risk assessment and economic forecasts.
Besides weather data, the ionospheric data that will be collected is important to satellite operators, radio communication operators, power grid operators, aviation pilots, and astronauts. The satellites will constantly be in receive and collect mode, enabling PlanetiQ to send customers updates within three minutes of data collection.
PlanetiQ’s satellites are equipped with the 4th generation GPS-RO sensors from the Broad Reach unit of Moog, which receive signals from all four major Global Navigation Satellite Systems—GPS, GLONASS, Galileo and Beidou—and are smaller, lighter, and require less power than previous versions. The sensor works by looking at the time it takes GPS signals to transmit through the atmosphere, from which temperature, pressure and moisture are calculated.
“The GPS-RO technology has been proven to be highly precise because it is based on a physics equation,” said Miglarese. “In basic terms, in low Earth orbit we will record the time it takes a GPS signal to leave mid orbit, enter the atmosphere, and leave the atmosphere. We measure every 100 meters along the signal path and then reconstruct the ray or occultation. With the first 12 satellites, every day we will collect over 8 million observations to create a minimum of 18,000 occultations around the globe.”
The resulting huge climate data repository of temperature, pressure and moisture data can be used for countless applications. “For example, commercial industries are very interested in climate change to determine risk—some will want regular updates to perform climate analytics,” said Miglarese. “To support the science/research community’s work on weather forecasting and climate monitoring, the separate PlanetiQ Foundation will make our data archive available free of charge.”
Development of applications for the data is in the early stages. “We envision PlanetiQ evolving from a data provider to a climate risk analytics company over time,” said Miglarese. “We’re confident that both NOAA and appropriators in Congress understand the enormous cost-benefit advantages of augmenting government systems with commercial data, thus stimulating growth of a whole new industry.”