Chris McCormick on PlanetiQ’s launch plans, NOAA’s commercial weather pilot

by

Chris McCormick
CEO and Founder
PlanetiQ


PlanetiQ was formed in 2012 to create a commercial constellation of satellites specifically focused on gathering near real-time, high-quality weather, climate and space weather data.

An initial set of microsatellites are to be deployed in 2017 each toting a novel sensor, the “Pyxis” — a radio occultation device able to regularly ping the lowest layers of Earth’s atmosphere where severe weather action takes place. The PlanetiQ constellation is slated to collect over 30,000 soundings per day, evenly distributed around the globe.

Future instruments planned for a follow-on suite of PlanetiQ satellites include an active temperature, ozone and moisture microwave spectrometer and a next-generation microwave radiometer.

The group’s driving mantra is to gather critical data for a smarter planet, information that is fine-tuned for enhanced weather forecasting, space weather prediction and climate analytics.

PlanetiQ is keen on shaking up the traditional model for government-funded environmental satellite programs, those cramped by aging and less-modern spacecraft, and subject to tight budgets and schedule slips. That adds up to “critical gaps” in data and being less vigilant, the company contends, at a time when the Earth is hammered by increasingly nasty hurricanes, winter storms, floods, and the ravages of drought.

PlanetiQ is not alone in developing a constellation of commercial GPS radio occultation satellites. California-based GeoOptics and Spire both have competing systems in the works.

Chris McCormick, founder and CEO of PlanetiQ, discussed the company’s plans with SpaceNews at the Boulder, Colorado, facility PlanetiQ shares with Blue Canyon Technologies.

What is the current status of PlanetiQ’s initial satellite constellation?

It is 12 cubesats in six orbits, two satellites per orbit, pretty much bird caging the planet to obtain an even distribution of data points around the entire globe. That allows us to obtain a whole snapshot of the entire planet at least once an orbit.

The first two satellites are going up on India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) with the launch date moving around a bit, probably during the first quarter of 2017. So we’re on a time crunch more than anything else. The spacecraft are being built upstairs at Blue Canyon Technologies with our payload built in our clean room here, then shipped out.

There are four more PlanetiQ satellites to be launched six months later, and then six more six months after that. So we want to get 12 birds on orbit in about 12 months, starting with our first launch by India, hopefully in the January time period.

What launchers would be used for the other satellites?

We’re shopping around for boosters, looking for rides. Being your own prime, defining your orbits and your timelines, is ideal. So we wish groups like Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne well and hope that they succeed. We’d like the first 12 satellites to all go into similar type, sun-synchronous orbits to create our bird cage of covering the planet. After the first 12 satellites we’ll probably have the follow-on satellites go into lower inclinations that help more with tighter data distribution of soundings over areas where most people live.

Given that the constellation is up and operating, what’s a business day like?

From the operations side, making sure the data is properly set up and calibrated to assimilate that data into a user’s forecasting models. We’re focused on atmospheric physics, mostly on the thermodynamics side. So that means temperatures, pressures, densities, electron count and electron density profiles and scintillation characteristics. From a big picture perspective we’re trying to make the seven-day forecast as good as the three-day forecast now …and the three-day forecast is basically right on. A lot of the weather created on this planet is really the sun-ocean interface that creates weather patterns. You need data over the oceans, pristine data, and radio occultation does that. Data points every 100 to 200 meters from the surface of the planet to the top of the ionosphere so you have the vertical knowledge. Also, getting underneath the clouds is key. Some 70 percent of the planet is contaminated by clouds. That last several kilometers down to the surface, the boundary layer, that’s where things are mixing. That’s where we live. That’s where most of the real weather happens.

Artist's concept of the satellites that Blue Canyon Technologies is building for PlanetiQ in Boulder, Colorado. Credit: PlanetiQ
Artist’s concept of the satellites that Blue Canyon Technologies is building for PlanetiQ in Boulder, Colorado. Credit: PlanetiQ

What’s the significance of NOAA’s commercial weather data pilot program to assess the potential viability of commercial weather data in its modeling and forecasting?

NOAA would enter into at least one pilot contract, through a competitive process.

The FY2016 NOAA appropriations bill included $3 million for a commercial weather data pilot program. It’s not a lot of money from an industrial or capability perspective. Hopefully, 2017 will see more money and 2018 will see a lot more for them. But it’s a start. It helps develop the industry. It helps develop the tax base. It helps create jobs. A big benefit is that it looks like the government is getting involved, just like the start of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency buying imagery data. So it should be a net-positive, just like Google, intelligence agencies and commercial companies buying imagery around the planet. So it’s a good thing. Certainly we wish it was $30 million, but it’ll help.

Why does PlanetiQ want to establish a foundation to provide data at no cost to research and education users?

At heat, we are researchers. So we want to make sure that the data is available to make better forecast models. There are a lot of different universities that are doing atmospheric physics. We would like to be able to get them the data next to free. We want them to use this data, especially for actually improving the models. The better the model, the better everything is. We think our data is going to be pristine enough that it can help start picking out errors in models.

PlanetiQ recently took part in a town hall panel at the American Meteorological Society to discuss the future of the “weather value chain.” What does that term mean?

It’s about people having choices, whether it is planning aircraft routes, where exactly that hurricane is going to hit on the coast, or if you need to move drilling platforms — or not — in the Gulf of Mexico. Or if skiing tomorrow or the day after is going to be better. Those are simple, straightforward things. It is also about anything to do with commodities especially agriculture … how much wind or rain will impact those commodities? Other parts of the chain depend on analytics for such things as crop migration and spread of crop diseases.

How did the name PlanetiQ come about and what does that mean?

We’re doing new things in space or in the science industry in general, creating things that don’t exist and trying to get our brains bigger. You need an IQ on it, so we’re also trying to make the planet smarter, or at least the residents of the planet smarter.

There’s need to exercise the brain to acquire new knowledge. That’s where the name came from. We want to do good both from getting our brains bigger, helping the forecast models and actually bring in more money than we’re spending. We want to close both the physics and the business plan. The thing that we can do is help calibrate this planet, so that’s what we’re doing.