GeoOptics Aims To Sell Weather Satellite Data to NOAA

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WASHINGTON — U.S. startup firm GeoOptics LLC says it has secured private funding to build and launch six Earth-observing satellites in 2011 to collect weather and climate data it expects to sell to the U.S. government among others.

The envisioned satellites would employ an Earth-observing technique called GPS radio occultation (GPS-RO) that the Pasadena, Calif.-based company has been studying on behalf of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is interested in purchasing weather data from private firms.

GeoOptics plans to launch the first six satellites of its Cicero constellation in late 2011, followed about a year later by as many as 18 more satellites. GeoOptics is confident NOAA will buy Cicero data, but even if it does not, there are enough interested research institutions around the world to make the endeavor profitable, GeoOptics President Tom Yunck said in a Nov. 17 interview.

GeoOptics’ board of advisers includes former NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher and retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, who ran for president in 2004.

The company has received an undisclosed amount of financial backing for Cicero from Near Earth LLC, Rodman & Renshaw LLC and Social Wealth Partners, according to Yunck.

GeoOptics plans to buy the six 30-kilogram Cicero satellites and instruments from Broad Reach Engineering, a Golden, Colo.-based spaceflight hardware firm that has built GPS occultation receivers for multiple in-orbit spacecraft.

Broad Reach Engineering has done preliminary design work for GeoOptics, Yunck said, and a satellite production contract is expected to be signed late this year or early next year. The two companies have collectively spent more than $15 million developing the satellite and the next-generation GPS-RO instrument, which Yunck said will be the most sensitive ever built.

GeoOptics intends to contract in early 2010 with Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. to launch the first six satellites on a Falcon 1e rocket, Yunck said.

The radio occultation technique at the heart of the Cicero concept was pioneered by NASA’s Pasadena, Calif.-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Stanford University of Palo Alto, Calif., for determining the size and atmospheric composition of distant planets. When a planet occults, or passes in front of, a star, the star’s brightness decreases. The amount of the decrease can be used to approximate the height of the planet’s atmosphere. The way in which the star’s radio waves bend and change relative to the observer can be used to characterize the planet’s atmospheric composition.

Radio occultation also has been used to make  measurements of Earth’s atmosphere. As relatively high-flying GPS satellites fall below the horizon, nearby satellites with GPS-RO receivers, such as Taiwan’s Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC) constellation, pick up the emitted GPS radio waves as they pass through the atmosphere. The observed frequency changes are used to measure atmospheric temperature, humidity, pressure and electron density. Yunck said the COSMIC constellation’s GPS radio occultation data has more than 1,000 users worldwide, including NOAA which since 2007 has been incorporating GPS-RO data into its weather forecasts. Launched in 2006, the six-satellite COSMIC constellation is designed to last through 2011. There currently are no firm plans for a replacement.

GeoOptics has secured financial backing to build and launch a constellation of commercial GPS-RO satellites that would keep the atmospheric data flowing to a COSMIC user base that spans 50 countries worldwide — assuming those users can be converted to paying customers.

Yunck expressed confidence that NOAA will be among the first in line to buy Cicero data.

“We believe this will be a fundamental departure for NOAA and a continuation in the trend toward commercializing space,” Yunck said. “We don’t want to wait for NOAA to take the initiative because that might take another year or two or three. So we’re just going to move forward and get the satellites up and running. At the end of 2011, we know NOAA will have the money by then and there will be no practical alternative to buying our data.”

The Cicero constellation would also be well suited to providing the U.S. military with space weather information, Yunck said. GeoOptics responded to an April request for information from the U.S. Air Force regarding the possibility of obtaining commercial space weather data. The company believes it could provide all 13 types of ionospheric data that the Air Force is interested in, and it may in fact choose to add these sensors to its next 18 satellites without a firm commitment from the service to buy the data.