Chinese space firm raises funds for commercial weather data satellite constellation

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HELSINKI — A Chinese private company wants to build a constellation of 80 satellites to provide weather data, further illustrating the growth and scope of China’s commercial space sector.

Tianjin-based Yunyao Yuhang recently secured nearly $14.8 million in “Pre-A+” funding, the company announced Aug. 4, following a previous round worth “tens of millions of yuan” in July 2021. The new round was led by Zhongwei Yihe Investment.

Yunyao Yuhang was founded in 2019 in response to a call for deepened “military-civilian integration” in China. The company’s aim is to provide data for global weather forecasting and even short-term earthquake forecasting, including for countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Earlier statements from the company laid out a 2023 target for establishing the 80-strong constellation, a timeline omitted from the latest press release. 

However, instead of using dedicated satellites, the company has apparently chosen the route of arranging for its GNSS occultation (GNSS-RO) and GNSS reflectometry (GNSS-R) payloads to fly aboard the satellites of other firms.

GNSS-RO remote sensing payloads in low Earth orbit are designed to pick up GPS, Beidou and other GNSS satellite signals, with changes to the signals as they pass through Earth’s atmosphere and ionosphere providing data useful for weather forecasting and atmospheric processes, ionospheric research and other areas. 

GNSS-R payloads collect signals reflected from the Earth’s surface and can be used to monitor ocean, land and ice surfaces, wind state, soil moisture, sea levels and more. 

Yunyao Aerospace has already sent a number of payloads into orbit, including aboard the small Baoyun satellite launched on a Ceres-1 solid rocket in December, on sats developed by Changguang Satellite Technology (CGST), a remote sensing satellite company. 

Most recently Yunyao Yuhang saw its first dual-polarization L-band GNSS-R payload for ocean measurements sent into space aboard the Jilin-1 Kuanfu 01C satellite launched May 3. Yunyao Aerospace and CGST signed a deal in 2020 for carrying 23 GNSS occultation payloads.

The firm’s core team of engineers and meteorological industry experts are former employees of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the country’s giant state-owned space contractor.

Commercial satellite weather data is also of interest elsewhere, with American startups including Boston-based Tomorrow.io, Colorado-based PlanetiQ and Florida-based Acme.

The U.S. Space Force is considering buying commercial weather data services to supplement data collected by its own sensor satellites. 

China’s government opened up the space sector in late 2014, with a particular initial aim of attracting private capital to boost small satellite and remote sensing capacity. 

A number of launch and small satellite firms have notably emerged, but commercial and private space activity has spread to various upstream and downstream segments and applications, including satellite communications, subsystems, component manufacturing, ground stations, antennae, electric propulsion, laser communications, space resources and beyond.

A number of cities and provinces are seeking to attract and foster clusters of these high-end technology firms, including Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan, Guangzhou, Beijing, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Xi’an, Changsha and Wenchang and the Yangtze Delta region.