Spire Global is expanding cubesat constellation to offer persistent global view

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AUSTIN, Texas – Spire Global, the San Francisco-based company that operates 48 GPS radio occultation cubesats, could provide a persistent view of about 97 percent of Earth with a constellation of 150 satellites, said Alexander “Sandy” MacDonald, Spire’s global validation model director.

“It would be like a global GEO satellite and there are huge implications of that,” MacDonald, former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, said Jan. 9 at the American Meteorological Society meeting here.

Spire is not alone in seeing the value of GPS radio occultation. NOAA and Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology are preparing to launch six Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC) 2A satellites this year on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. GeoOptics of Pasadena, California, is another startup working to establish a constellation of GPS radio occultation satellites.

A constellation of 100 to 200 radio occultation satellites, which provide detailed observations of atmospheric temperature and moisture, could be used in conjunction with geostationary weather satellites like NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-16 to dramatically improve the accuracy and spatial resolution of global weather prediction models, MacDonald said.

Spire is building one satellite per week in its factory in Scotland, but could produce its three-unit cubesats more quickly. “I think we could turn them out at two or three or five per week,” MacDonald said.

Spire also is expanding its ground network. The company has 27 ground stations operating and is pushing to increase that number to 50 because the added ground stations will allow the firm to provide customers with data no more than 30 minutes old, MacDonald said.

In addition to using its spacecraft for meteorology, Spire’s cubesats carry Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) payloads for aircraft tracking and Automatic Identification System (AIS) payloads for maritime tracking. “We collect about 10 million ship reports a day,” MacDonald said.