Smallsat Developer Spire To Enter Commercial Weather Market

by

WASHINGTON — A San Francisco-based developer of nanosatellites announced Jan. 29 that it plans to start deploying a constellation of spacecraft by the end of this year to collect weather data for government and commercial customers.

Spire said that it believes its constellation of cubesat-class satellites, which will eventually exceed 100 spacecraft, will provide data that will greatly improve the accuracy of weather forecasts.

“We are right now with weather forecasting where we were with finding directions 10 years ago,” said Spire chief executive officer Peter Platzer in a Jan. 27 interview. Just as online mapping services made getting directions easier and more reliable, he said he hopes his satellites’ data will do the same for weather.

Spire plans to use “3U” cubesats to provide the weather data. Credit: Spire
Spire plans to use “3U” cubesats to provide the weather data. Credit: Spire

Spire plans to provide this data by measuring signals from GPS satellites as those signals pass through the atmosphere. This technique, known as GPS radio occultation, provides profiles of temperature, pressure, and humidity in the atmosphere that can be incorporated into weather forecasting models.

“GPS radio occultation is the bread-and-butter of short-term weather forecasting,” Platzer said.

The company is not the first to consider using GPS radio occultation to provide weather data. A satellite system called the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC), jointly developed and operated by the United States and Taiwan, currently provides GPS radio occultation data, with a follow-on system, COSMIC-2, under development. Other companies, including GeoOptics and PlanetiQ, have also proposed satellite systems to provide this data commercially.

Spire plans to use “3U” cubesats, measuring about 30 centimeters long and weighing a few kilograms, to provide the data, making its satellites considerably smaller than the COSMIC spacecraft or those planned by other companies. Spire’s spacecraft will fly as secondary payloads on launches starting in October, with 20 scheduled for launch into low Earth orbit by the end of 2015.

The company will expand the system to more than 100 satellites over the next two and a half years, Platzer said. The company then plans to continuously refresh the constellation with more advanced spacecraft, replacing about one quarter of the satellites on orbit every six months. He said the company is also developing a network of 20 ground stations to receive data from the satellites.

“Rather than talking about stuff, we are building and launching stuff,” Platzer said when asked how his company differs from others in the commercial weather market, who have yet to launch any satellites.

One obstacle companies in the commercial weather market have encountered is winning customers. Platzer said Spire has signed up a dozen government and commercial customers, in the United States and other countries, but declined to identify them. The company will start by selling data, he said, but may later also offer value-added services based on that weather data.

Spire, previously known as Nanosatisfi, raised $25 million in venture capital in July 2014. At that time, the company said it was developing “high frequency, high accuracy” remote sensing systems focused on maritime markets. Platzer said Spire is fully funded through the deployment of its constellation.