Commercial Weather Hopefuls Preach Cooperation, Gird for Competition

by

WASHINGTON — In a Dec. 2 webinar, aspiring private weather satellite operators who want to sell data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration pitched their services as a supplement, not a competitor, to the government-operated satellites that contribute most of the space-based data used in U.S. weather forecasting.

Top executives with GeoOptics and PlanetIQ — companies that have lobbied Congress to grease the skids for selling commercial weather satellite data to NOAA — spoke during the webcast, which was co-hosted by the American Meteorological Society’s Forecast Improvement Group and the NOAA Science Advisory Board’s Environmental Information Services Working Group.

“No one is suggesting the private sector replace the national weather satellite systems,” Karen Dacres, general counsel for Bethesda, Maryland-based PlanetIQ, said during the webcast.

“This is not an ‘or’; this is an ‘and,’” Dacres’ boss, PlanetIQ Chief Executive Anne Hale Miglarese, said of commercial weather data.

Currently, NOAA does not buy commercial weather satellite data. The agency relies, as it has for decades, on government-operated polar-orbiting and geostationary weather satellite systems — respectively known as the Joint Polar Satellite System and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R series — to make the vast majority of the space-based weather measurements needed by the National Weather Service.

Conrad Lautenbacher, NOAA administrator from 2001 to 2008 and now chief executive of GeoOptics, said while neither his company nor PlanetIQ advocated the cancellation of either legacy NOAA satellite program, “we can bring in a commercial element.”

Although neither PlanetIQ nor GeoOptics has designs on replacing NOAA’s biggest satellites, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars each, both companies plan to compete head-on with government-operated weather satellites called Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC), which use a technique called GPS radio occultation to gather temperature, humidity and pressure data by observing the distortion of GPS signals as they pass through Earth’s atmosphere. The data can improve seven-day weather forecasts fed by polar orbiters and geostationary satellites.

The first tranche of six COSMIC satellites launched in 2006. The $120 million constellation was a partnership between the U.S. Air Force and Taiwan, with Taiwan covering some $96 million of the cost. The 12-satellite COSMIC-2 constellation is slated to launch in two batches of six spacecraft, with the first launch scheduled for 2016. Another U.S.-Taiwan partnership, COSMIC-2 will cost about $420 million, split between the partners.

Both PlanetIQ and GeoOptics plan to launch at least a dozen GPS radio occultation satellites, but neither has ordered spacecraft yet. Both companies envision selling data to NOAA, non-U.S. governments and private companies around the world. Developing nations and researchers would get the data for free, Miglarese and Lautenbacher said.

In a Dec. 4 update to its website, GeoOptics said it plans to launch its first Cicero satellite in late 2015, about a year later than the date the company had penciled in as recently as last year. PlanetIQ, meanwhile, has pursued NOAA as an anchor tenant for its fleet, which the company says it would begin launching two years after clinching a contract with the weather agency.

“We are actively negotiating late 2016, early 2017 for a secondary launch opportunity,” PlanetIQ spokesman Dan Stillman wrote in a Dec. 4 email.

NOAA, for its part, continues to perform due diligence on the commercial weather satellite business. That diligence includes the Dec. 2 webinar, which was the weather agency’s idea, said Betsy Weatherhead, chairwoman of the American Meteorological Society’s Forecasting Improvement Group. So far, however, NOAA has shown no sign that it will commit to commercial data buys before any commercial weather satellites launch.

While NOAA mulls the issue, a rising congressional champion for commercial weather companies, U.S. Rep. James Bridenstine (R-Okla.), has vowed to reintroduce his Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2014 in the next session of Congress, which begins Jan. 3. Bridenstine’s bill, which the full House approved this year, would require NOAA to test its forecasting models to see what effect the addition of commercial weather data would have on the system.

Whatever help companies such as GeoOptics and PlanetIQ get from Congress or NOAA, they will face an uphill battle in the capital markets, which barely acknowledge the existence of a commercial weather market — unless it is to acknowledge the failure of the market to materialize,  Miglarese said.

“Wall Street views the weather satellite market as a failed market,” Miglarese told webinar participants. “What they want to see is evidence of a buyer.”