Startup GeoMetWatch Awarded U.S. License To Sell Hyperspectral Satellite Data

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WASHINGTON — Startup firm GeoMetWatch on Sept. 15 was awarded a U.S. Commerce Department license to sell space-based hyperspectral sounding data, which it hopes to sell to government weather organizations around the world, according to the company’s top official.

Las Vegas, Nev.-based GeoMetWatch has tapped Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory to design a hyperspectral instrument that could be hosted on a commercial geostationary communications satellite, David Crain, the company’s chief executive officer, said in an Oct. 20 interview. Once a customer agreement is in place, the first sensor could be on orbit as soon as 2014, he said.

Weather organizations around the world see space-based hyperspectral sensing as a way to improve weather forecasting and severe storm tracking. Optimally, a space-based hyperspectral capability would include sensors in both low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit.

Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization has a hyperspectral sounding instrument on its low Earth orbiting MetOp-A satellite that was launched in 2006, and the capability is planned to fly on the Meteosat Third Generation geostationary satellites that are first slated for launch in 2016.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA plan to deploy hyperspectral instruments on the low Earth orbiting Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft scheduled to begin launching in 2015, as well as an operational precursor satellite set to launch next year. The agencies planned to field hyperspectral sensors on the next-generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series spacecraft first planned to launch in 2015, but budgetary pressures caused the Hyperspectral Environmental Suite to be eliminated in a 2006 restructuring.

With a U.S. Commerce Department license to operate as many as six hyperspectral instruments in space, GeoMetWatch is in discussion with a number of government organizations interested in purchasing the data through various business models, Crain said. The optimal arrangement for the company would be to have one anchor tenant with an unlimited license to redistribute the data. Other options that would not provide unlimited access to redistribute the data also are possible, Crain said. GeoMetWatch will consider several options for financing the project, including venture capital arrangements and debt financing, Crain said.

GeoMetWatch has contracted with the Space Dynamics Laboratory for initial design work for the hyperspectral sounder and hopes to sign a production contract in early 2011, Crain said. The instrument will be based on the Geosynchronous Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer that the Space Dynamics Laboratory was involved with developing. That instrument was to be a precursor to the Hyperspectral Environmental Suite but got shelved when NASA’s Earth Observing-3 satellite was cancelled in 2008.

NOAA’s current generation GOES satellites have multiband spectrometers that are used for atmospheric profiling, but they are not adequate for tracking fast-moving storms, Crain said.

“They can make one observation of [the continental United States] every 45 minutes to an hour, and they take about eight hours to profile [their full field of view],” he said. “That time is really too slow to be of much benefit for severe weather tracking or forecasting.

“The benefit of the hyperspectral sensor we will fly is it will have much higher spectral resolution, which gives you much higher vertical resolution in the atmospheric profiles. We can profile [the continental United States] in five to 15 minutes and [a full field of view] every 30 minutes to an hour.”

GeoMetWatch is in negotiations with several potential industry and academic partners that it would contract with to operate the hyperspectral instruments and develop algorithms for processing and exploiting their data, Crain said.

At least one other U.S. company has announced plans to try to sell space-based weather data to government customers. GeoOptics of Pasadena, Calif., plans to launch 12 small satellites into low Earth orbit to gather atmospheric density, pressure, moisture and temperature data through a relatively new method known as GPS radio occultation.

GeoOptics and its satellite and instrument manufacturer, Broad Reach Engineering of Golden, Colo., the week of Oct. 11 unveiled its nearly completed first prototype satellite in a public ceremony in Boulder, Colo., GeoOptics President Tom Yunck said Oct. 21. The two companies expect to move into the satellite production phase in the coming months, Yunck said.

GeoOptics plans to contract by the end of the year with Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. to launch all of its satellites on a single Falcon 1e rocket in late 2012, Yunck said. The company has not yet applied for a Commerce Department license to sell this data, he said.

NOAA does not currently have plans to buy space-based commercial weather data of any kind, agency spokesman John Leslie said in an Oct. 21 e-mailed response to questions.