The European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts created this Forecast Sensitivity Observation Impact chart, which notes the relative importance of various datasets in reducing forecast errors. The light blue line shows the declining impact of airborne sensors as air travel declined during the COVID-19 pandemic. The orange line shows the growing importance of radio occultation data with the addition of data from the second Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate in March and Spire Global data in May. Credit: ECMWF

SAN FRANCISCO – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded its first contracts Nov. 20 to purchase radio occultation data from commercial satellite operators GeoOptics and Spire Global.

The Nov. 20 awards are the culmination of years of work by both companies to develop, manufacture and operate satellites to gather atmospheric temperature, pressure and water vapor observations to feed into operational weather forecasts.

The two-year indefinite delivery-indefinite quantity contracts awarded to GeoOptics and Spire Global have a total ceiling of $23 million. On Nov. 20, NOAA also awarded initial task orders to both companies but did not reveal the value of those orders.

Since 2016, NOAA has scrutinized radio occultation data provided by private companies through the Commercial Weather Data Pilot. In June, the agency issued a report that concluded, “the commercial sector is capable of providing the quality of data needed to help support NOAA’s operational weather forecasting needs.”

NOAA has a target of acquiring 20,000 soundings per day, Steve Volz, NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services, said in January at the American Meteorological Society’s conference in Boston. A significant portion of the data are likely to come from the six satellites that make up the second U.S.-Taiwan Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC) constellation launched in 2019.

Spire Global operates a constellation of more than 100 Lemur cubesats with multiple sensors to track ships at sea, an aircraft in flight in addition to obtaining atmospheric data by noting how signals from global navigation satellites like GPS travel through the atmosphere.

“We are pleased that NOAA has selected Spire for the operational procurement of radio occultation,” Keith Johnson, Spire Global vice president and general manager – federal, told SpaceNews by email. Our missions are synergistic and we look forward to a long and happy partnership. We believe this represents both an amazing third-party validation as it deeply illustrates the kind of collaboration that is possible between public and private institutions to support such a critical service for people and businesses around the world.”

GeoOptics focuses exclusively on weather data with a smaller constellation of cubesats called CICERO (for Community Initiative for Cellular Earth Remote Observation) that are roughly twice the size of Lemurs. GeoOptics does not publicly discuss the size of its constellation.

“GeoOptics is very pleased and excited about our new contract with NOAA,” GeoOptics CEO Conrad Lautenbacher told SpaceNews by email. “We look forward to providing top-of-the-line radio occultation data for use in National Weather Service forecasts.”

During the Commercial Weather Data Pilot, NOAA evaluated data from 12 Lemurs and two CICEROs.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...