Smallsats provide opportunities and challenges for weather data


SEATTLE — As companies developing commercial constellations of satellites to provide weather data argue the industry is on the cusp of an information revolution, others cautioned there are still key issues to be addressed regarding the use and access to such data.

During a panel session at the 97th Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) here Jan. 25, representatives of two companies developing smallsat constellations said their planned systems will be able to provide far more data per dollar than conventional large systems.

“There’s a revolution going on, and it’s every bit as big and powerful as the computer revolution,” said Sandy MacDonald of Spire. “It offers 100 to 1,000 times more observations per dollar.”

Spire is one of several companies developing smallsat systems to collect data through a technique called GPS radio occultation, where satellites receive signals from Global Positioning System satellites that pass through the Earth’s atmosphere. Those signals can serve as probes of the atmosphere, providing data about conditions that can be incorporated into weather models to improve the accuracy of forecasts.

“We believe we can put up 100 of these satellites by some time next year,” MacDonald said. Each satellite should be able to collect 1,000 atmospheric profiles a day. “That means 100,000 a day. That provides a super-detailed sounding that gives you the equivalent of a temperature and moisture profile for every degree of latitude and longitude for every 12 hours.”

These systems could be a counter to the growth in cost of current large weather satellite systems, which take more than a decade to develop. “We have a revolution in technology, and we ought to be working in that direction to provide smaller, faster, cheaper and more effective instrumentation for weather forecasting,” said Conrad Lautenbacher, chief executive of GeoOptics, another company developing smallsats to collect GPS radio occultation weather data.

Such systems, though, pose challenges for meteorologists who want to use the data. In other sessions, scientists noted potential issues with incorporating different data sets from different systems, including data formats and calibration standards.

“The weather enterprise has to be flexible enough to handle and ingest and deal with all these new potential measurements,” said Eric Webster, vice president and general manager of environmental solutions at Harris. “I think that’s something we haven’t gotten to yet.”

Smallsat constellations, for collecting weather data or other applications, may also face radio interference challenges. “Small satellites are a significant new tool for remote sensing, but there’s nothing small about the radio spectrum needs for a constellation of small satellites,” said David Lubar of the Aerospace Corporation in a separate AMS conference session earlier in the day.

Lubar said as the number of such systems grows, so does the potential for interference among them, or between smallsat constellations and other satellites. Moreover, licensing systems can be “out of sync” with smallsat systems, he said, taking far longer to work through regulatory issues than it does to actually develop the system itself. “We need to rethink, and need to include in the planning, spectrum when planning such systems,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest challenge specific to commercial weather satellite systems is the availability of data. Government agencies will likely be a major customer of these systems, but such agencies also have mandates to freely share data with other nations, potentially depriving companies of additional customers.

“This is obviously a paramount question,” said Lautenbacher. “It’s being discussed now everywhere.”

Lautenbacher, a former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said he believed there should be some data, particularly that required for public safety, that should be freely available. But other data, he suggested, could be reserved for the private sector and sold to them. “In the end, I think it’s a mixed model,” he said. “How do you get there is the question.”

MacDonald agreed. “We have to protect of the public to have access to crucial safety information,” he said, while preserving other data for private use. “There’s going to be an evolution that’s almost inevitable.”

Such smallsat systems, panelists noted, are intended to augment, and not replace, the existing and planned much larger weather satellites, such as the new generation of geostationary weather satellites and the upcoming Joint Polar Satellite System. However, smallsat systems could influence future systems just now being considered.

“We have a strong foundation that’s going to be there for a number of years,” Webster said of those larger satellites. “Now, it’s a question of what are all of these new and cool things that we can actually do.”