Commercial Ventures Planning To Gather and Sell Weather Data

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SAN FRANCISCO — GeoMetWatch Corp. and PlanetIQ are seeking private financing for unrelated efforts to gather the type of detailed atmospheric data used to forecast severe weather and study climate change.

If the ventures are successful, they could pave the way for greater government reliance on commercial firms to provide data from space-based instruments.

GeoMetWatch plans to launch six hyperspectral sounders into geostationary orbit as hosted payloads on commercial communications satellites. The hyperspectral sounders, which are designed to measure atmospheric water vapor, wind, sea surface temperature and pollution, are based on an instrument developed by NASA and were scheduled to fly on the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) geostationary GOES-R satellite until the sensor was dropped from the program in 2006 due to technical issues and budget pressures. Recent technological advances, including active image stabilization, are enabling GeoMetWatch to build the sensors at a fraction of the cost of the previous government effort, said David Crain, president and chief executive of Las Vegas-based GeoMetWatch.

PlanetIQ, a project founded by Moog Inc. of East Aurora, N.Y., Broad Reach Engineering Co. of Golden, Colo., and Millennium Engineering and Integration Co. of Arlington, Va., also is basing its sensor on one designed for a government program. The GPS radio occultation instrument PlanetIQ plans to launch aboard a 12-satellite, low Earth orbit constellation was developed for the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC), which features six satellites launched in 2006 by the Taiwanese Space Agency and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research of Boulder, Colo. Although the COSMIC satellites proved that GPS radio occultation sensors offer detailed data on atmospheric temperature, pressure and humidity, plans for the COSMIC-2 follow-on constellation have been delayed due to funding issues, said Anne Hale Miglarese, PlanetIQ president and chief executive.

GeoMetWatch and PlanetIQ executives said the difficulties U.S. agencies are experiencing in revitalizing their aging weather satellite constellations may provide an opportunity for commercial vendors to sell weather data drawn from space-based sensors. Miglarese and Crain pointed to the example set a decade ago by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). Faced with delays and cost overruns on U.S. government-owned Earth imaging satellites, NGA was forced to rely more heavily on data purchased from commercial sources.

“It is ironic that today’s national weather satellite systems are in the same posture as those of the intelligence community over a decade ago,” Miglarese said March 21 in testimony before the U.S. House Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee. “Years later we know that the solution of investing in and fostering development of commercial data sources is a proven model of success.”

Both PlanetIQ and GeoMetWatch drafted plans to launch commercial weather sensors before across-the-board spending cuts threatened to further delay efforts by NOAA and U.S. Department of Defense to replace existing weather satellites. Nevertheless, executives from the two companies agreed the current fiscal crisis in Washington underscores the need for commercial weather satellites to assist in providing continuous observations.

NOAA officials have said repeatedly that they anticipate a gap in observations of key weather variables because the sensors onboard the agency’s polar orbiting weather satellites, NOAA-19 and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership craft, are expected to stop functioning before the first spacecraft in the Joint Polar Satellite System fleet is launched and its sensors are validated. In addition, across-the-board spending cuts threaten to delay the launch of GOES-R and GOES-S, Rebecca Blank, deputy commerce secretary, told Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) in a Feb. 8 letter.

The Defense Department’s plan to replace aging weather satellites also has encountered obstacles. The Air Force was preparing to build its next-generation Defense Weather Satellite System until Congress stopped funding the effort in 2011 due to cost concerns. Since then, Air Force officials have been working with industry to identify cost-effective ways to fly new weather sensors, while preparing to launch the last two satellites built for its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) constellation. The two DMSP spacecraft, which the Air Force plans to launch in 2014 and 2020, “may not work as intended since they were built in the late 1990s and will be quite old by the time they are launched,” according to a Government Accountability Office “High-Risk Series Update” released Feb. 14.

In spite of those concerns, U.S. agencies have shown little interest in obtaining hyperspectral data from GeoMetWatch sensors. “We don’t need money up front,” Crain said. “If the government is interested, an agency would need to pay for the processing required to ingest and utilize our data. That way, when the data is available it won’t fall on the floor at the National Weather Service.”

GeoMetWatch has gotten a warmer reception from other nations, including about a dozen who have signed memoranda of understanding with the firm. GeoMetWatch plans to station its first sensor over the Asia Pacific region in 2016, Crain said.

PlanetIQ officials also are talking to government agencies around the world and obtaining letters of intent to use its data. At the same time, PlanetIQ executives are meeting with private equity firms in an effort to raise $160 million to build, launch and operate the 12-satellite constellation, Miglarese said.

Even if government agencies begin to rely on data provided by PlanetIQ and GeoMetWatch, government-owned and -operated satellites will continue to play an important role in weather forecasting and climate research. However, the success of the private ventures could encourage companies to take over additional jobs. “If we can make this work, you could look at commercializing every capability on GOES-R,” said Crain, who previously served as GOES-R program chief scientist for ITT Exelis of Fort Wayne, Ind.

Chris McCormick, group vice president for Moog’s space sector, said government agencies should lead the way in developing advanced technology, but “routine efforts to obtain the type of space-based data used in weather forecasting models eventually could and should be commercialized.” McCormick was chief executive at Broad Reach Engineering before Moog acquired the firm in January.

GeoMetWatch announced in February that Utah State University’s Advanced Weather Systems laboratory was beginning to build its first Sounding and Tracking Observatory for Regional Meteorology (STORM) hyperspectral sounding instrument. STORM is based on the Geosynchronous Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer, which was developed, built and tested by the Utah State’s Space Dynamics Laboratory under NASA and NOAA contracts. The University of Wisconsin’s Space Science and Engineering Center plans to process data from the STORM instrument for GeoMetWatch customers.