Lofty Aspirations for Spire’s Weather-watching Cubesats

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SAN FRANCISCO — Peter Platzer was taking an astrophysics summer course in Italy when he gave up his plans for a space career. During a lunch in Tuscany in the mid-1990s, his professor mentioned a colleague who spent 15 years building an instrument to study the ionosphere only to see it break apart in a launch failure. The man’s career never recovered.

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“He never got the data he was seeking, he never got to write the papers he promised to write and he never got tenure,” Platzer said. “In that moment I decided, ‘I will not continue to go down that track toward space. I will follow my business interest.’”

For more than a decade, Platzer worked as a financial consultant in Europe and Asia until a 2009 executive program at Singularity University introduced him to nanosatellites and rekindled his passion for space. Platzer is now the chief executive of Spire, a startup focused on providing customers with weather and maritime data drawn from small satellites.

“We are familiar with roughly a quarter of the planet, which is the land mass,” Platzer said. “The only way to gather large amounts of data over the other three-quarters is from satellites.”

In 2015, Spire plans to launch 20 triple cubesats. By the end of 2017, the company will have more than 100 satellites in orbit, said Chris Wake, Spire business operations director.

Spire plans to launch the cubesats into a variety of orbits as secondary payloads on many different rockets. “We have flown or signed with everyone out there,” Platzer said. The list includes Russia’s Soyuz and Dnepr rockets, SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Orbital Sciences’ Antares and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ H2A and H2B.

To date, Spire has launched four satellites: Ardusat-1 and Ardusat-X, single unit cubesats with open-source software to enable members of the general public to conduct space-based experiments; Ardusat-2, a two-unit technology demonstration and Earth observation cubesat; and Lemur-1, a triple cubesat and technology demonstrator. Those satellites were launched when the company was known as Nanosatisfi. It adopted the name Spire in July 2014.

Peter Platzer: "We calculated that our system will be 10,000 times more resilient than the traditional [weather satellite] systems because we will have a network of 100 satellites and we can launch every single month."
Peter Platzer: “We calculated that our system will be 10,000 times more resilient than the traditional [weather satellite] systems because we will have a network of 100 satellites and we can launch every single month.”
Spire’s new satellites will be equipped with a GPS radio occultation receiver to monitor atmospheric pressure, temperature and water vapor and provide the type of data, Spire executives said, will improve weather forecasts dramatically.

“Ninety-four percent of all data that goes into weather forecasting comes from satellites, but it comes from a handful of expensive, outdated systems that are not very resilient,” Platzer said. “If a weather satellite is knocked out by a power failure, solar storm or space debris, you’re out of luck. We calculated that our system will be 10,000 times more resilient than the traditional [weather satellite] systems because we will have a network of 100 satellites and we can launch every single month.”

Once its constellation is established, Spire plans to sell weather data to businesses that rely on accurate forecasts. Instead of asking government or commercial customers to contribute to the cost of establishing the weather satellite constellation, Spire clients will buy data, Platzer said.

Spire expects those clients to include construction companies that lose money whenever they pour concrete in the wrong weather conditions and power companies that suffer when they buy too much or too little short-term electricity. With more accurate weather data, companies around the world could save $2.5 trillion, Platzer said.

That does not mean, however, that companies will pay $2.5 trillion for a solution. “On average, when you take pain out of business, you get paid somewhere between ten and 30 percent,” said Platzer, a physicist with an MBA from Harvard Business School. He estimates that companies around the world would be willing to spend roughly $500 million for improved weather data.

Spire sees another multibillion-dollar market in helping maritime customers track ships, respond quickly to emergencies, steer vessels clear of pirates and combat illegal fishing operations. “When I started this business in 2012, I knew 90 percent of global trade happened on ships, but I did not know that 80 percent of the time the rest of the world didn’t know where the ships were,” Platzer said.

Spire’s forecasts showing multibillion markets for its data products have helped the company attract an estimated $80 million in investments. In June, Spire announced that it raised $40 million in its second round of equity financing led by Chicago-based Promus Ventures.

A member of one of Spire’s satellite operations teams at work. Credit: Spire
A member of one of Spire’s satellite operations teams at work. Credit: Spire

With that money, Spire is building cubesats and wrapping up construction of its European headquarters, a 585-square meter office in Glasgow, which is also the home of Clyde Space Ltd., a key supplier and partner for Spire’s satellite subsystems, Wake said.

“In the rapidly changing face of the space industry, Spire has a very clear understanding of not only where opportunities lie for exploitation of cubesats for downstream data services, but also on how they can leverage the work that has gone into products and processes for cubesat systems by companies like Clyde Space,” said Craig Clark, Clyde Space chief executive.

To support Spire, Clyde Space is expanding its cubesat testing capabilities, including establishing a dedicated thermal vacuum test chamber, vibration table, thermal cycling systems, attitude determination and control system calibration and radio frequency testing, Clark said by email.

Spire’s international operations and partnerships help the company keep its miniature satellites off the U.S. Munitions List, a catalog of items that cannot be exported without U.S. State Department permission and subject to the stringent International Traffic and Arms Regulations (ITAR). Although the White House and federal agencies have been working to simplify export control rules for commercially available hardware like cubesats, those rules remain a challenge for small companies eager to launch miniature spacecraft, Platzer said.

“The way ITAR is written is very harmful to the nanosatellite industry,” Platzer said. “We chose European suppliers for our first mission for that very reason. We have built ourselves a nice competitive advantage there.”