PlanetiQ Selects India’s PSLV To Launch its First Satellites

by

MELBOURNE, Fla. — PlanetiQ, one of several companies developing constellations of small satellites to collect weather data, announced Dec. 3 that it will launch its first two satellites in late 2016 on a Indian rocket.

The Boulder, Colorado-based company said the first two of a planned constellation of twelve satellites will fly as secondary payloads on a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) scheduled to launch in November 2016. The satellites will be placed into orbit at an altitude of 800 kilometers.

Chris McCormick, chairman and chief executive of PlanetiQ, said in an interview that his company picked the PSLV in part because the orbit it was going to was one of the best available for its satellites. The company, he added, also has been in discussions with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) about access to weather data.

PlanetiQ worked directly with Antrix, the commercial arm of ISRO, on the launch contract rather than through third parties that arrange launches of satellites as secondary payloads. McCormick declined to state the value of the contract, citing non-disclosure provisions in the contract. “We got a really good deal,” he said.

Launches of U.S.-built satellites on Indian rockets have been complicated in the past by U.S. policy that discourages the use of those vehicles. That policy is under review, an official with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said in October. Four satellites developed by San Francisco-based Spire launched in September as secondary payloads on a PSLV after the State Department granted a waiver to that policy.

McCormick said PlanetiQ has not encountered any problems in discussions with the Commerce and State Departments, and does not anticipate any issues obtaining an export license. “It’s not necessarily all that hard,” he said.

Blue Canyon Technologies' 6-unit XB1 cubesat bus.
Blue Canyon Technologies’ 6-unit XB1 cubesat bus.

Boulder-based Blue Canyon Technologies is building the satellites under a contract announced in June. Each 10-kilogram satellite will carry a sensor developed by PlanetIQ called Pyxis-RO to collect atmospheric data by measuring navigation satellite signals as they pass through the atmosphere. This approach, known as Global Positioning System radio occultation, provides profiles of atmospheric conditions that can be used to improve the accuracy of weather forecasts.

McCormick said that, after the initial launch of two satellites, PlanetiQ plans to launch four more in the summer of 2017. The company is looking at several launch providers, including ISRO, for that launch. The remaining six would be launched on a third mission by the end of 2017. The full constellation will be able to observe about 34,000 occultations per day worldwide.

PlanetiQ is one of several companies seeking to provide GPS radio occultation weather data commercially. Spire plans to use its constellation of cubesats to collect weather data, and Boulder-based GeoOptics is also working on its own system. The United States and Taiwan are also working on the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC) 2 system of 12 satellites planned for launch in 2016 and 2018.

McCormick said PlanetiQ has “close to a dozen” letters of intent with companies and government organizations worldwide for the data its satellites will provide. He added he is hopeful that the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Air Force will be more open to buying commercial data as they develop policies for purchases of commercial data. “We’re anticipating that NOAA and the Air Force will get more into data buys, like the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency did” with imagery, he said.

PlanetiQ, he said, will participate in a Dec. 7 meeting being held by NOAA in Silver Spring, Maryland, to discuss the agency’s commercial weather data policies.