U.S. Weather Sat Venture Sees Fairer Skies Over Asia

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SAN FRANCISCO — GeoMetWatch, a firm that announced plans in 2010 to fly commercial satellites in geostationary orbit to provide advanced weather and environmental observations, is raising money to send its first sensor into orbit over the Asia-Pacific region in 2016.

In 2010, when the U.S. Department of Commerce granted GeoMetWatch a license to operate as many as six satellites in geostationary orbit to provide hyperspectral imaging and sounding data, company officials envisioned flying the first spacecraft over the United States to support National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) efforts to forecast and track severe weather. Since NOAA has not yet made a commitment to support the program, GeoMetWatch plans to launch the first sensor on a commercial communications satellite over the Asia Pacific region where six countries have signed agreements to purchase the data, said David Crain, chief executive and chief technology officer for Las Vegas-based GeoMetWatch. Crain declined to name those countries, but said the agreements will provide GeoMetWatch with a total of more than $200 million in annual revenue.

“Rather than waiting for the United States, we are going to go forward with the customers we do have,” Crain said. “The lack of a U.S. customer commitment makes all these activities more difficult, but the demand for the data is so strong that we have made great progress regardless.”

Hyperspectral sounders provide detailed information on atmospheric water vapor, wind and pollution. NOAA planned to include a hyperspectral sounder and an advanced imager on its next-generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, GOES-R, but the sounder was dropped from that program in 2006 due to the rising cost of the overall effort.

With ongoing pressure to scale back federal spending, NOAA officials are reluctant to commit agency funding to buying commercial atmospheric data. “NOAA has determined that geostationary sounding data are not as high of a priority as other currently unfunded operational data needs,” NOAA spokesman John Leslie said in an April 5 email.

Since obtaining the Department of Commerce license, GeoMetWatch has been working with its partners, including the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative, Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory, Utah State University’s Research Foundation and the University of Wisconsin, to develop the satellite instrument, identify potential customers and raise money for the project. The project has received enthusiastic support in Utah due, in part, to its promise to bring jobs to the state. Space Dynamics Laboratory would need to hire “several hundred employees” to build six hyperspectral instruments for the GeoMetWatch constellation, said Forrest Fackrell, GeoMetWatch’s new senior vice president and chief development officer. Utah State University announced April 3 that Fackrell would leave his job as executive director of business development in its Office of Commercial Enterprises to join GeoMetWatch.

Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory has completed the design for the instrument GeoMetWatch plans to fly, the Sounding and Tracking Observatory for Regional Meteorology (STORM). The design of the STORM instrument is based on a similar sensor, the Geosynchronous Imaging Fournier Transform Spectrometer (GIFTS), which the Space Dynamics Laboratory developed under government contracts. NASA and NOAA paid the Space Dynamics Laboratory to develop, build, test and validate an engineering demonstration model of the GIFTS instrument from 1999-2006. The University of Wisconsin’s Space Science and Engineering Center, which also played a key role in the GIFTS program, plans to process data from the STORM instrument for GeoMetWatch customers.

Although atmospheric weather data traditionally have been provided to the public free of charge, GeoMetWatch officials said government and commercial customers will be willing to pay for data from the STORM instrument because they will be much more accurate than information currently available. “If you look at all the space-based weather instruments today, they are actually gathering less than about 40 million soundings per day,” Fackrell said. “Each GeoMetWatch sensor will be able to gather up to 100 million discreet soundings per day. You can imagine with that much more detailed information, how much more accurately we can predict severe weather.”

GeoMetWatch is nearing its goal of raising $6 million in initial funding. The company plans to raise “several tens of millions” in additional funding to manufacture the first STORM instrument and place it in orbit, said Jacoba Poppleton, Utah State University spokeswoman. It will cost GeoMetWatch $400 million to $600 million to build the six STORM sensors needed to offer global coverage and integrate them on commercial communications satellites, Crain said.

GeoMetWatch has selected Thales Alenia Space to manufacture the satellite bus for the STORM sensor. GeoMetWatch officials are in discussions with potential satellite operators. In addition to hosting the STORM payload, the Thales Alenia spacecraft bus will carry as many as 36 commercial communications transponders that will be rented to customers to help defray the cost of the atmospheric observation program, Crain said.

GeoMetWatch is raising money to build the STORM instruments and associated ground processing equipment. However, GeoMetWatch and the commercial communications satellite operator that joins the program will share the cost of developing the spacecraft bus, launching the satellite and operating it, Crain said. That business model is designed to produce a space-based atmospheric sensing capability for 5 to 10 percent of the cost of a dedicated weather satellite constellation, he added.

GeoMetWatch plans to sell hyperspectral data gathered by the STORM instrument on a fee-for-service basis. Customers will not be asked to share in the expense of operating the satellite, but will pay only for the data they agree to purchase. GeoMetWatch also will honor data sharing agreements between customers. “For example, a U.S. customer who purchases GeoMetWatch data over the United States will be able to receive GeoMetWatch data gathered over Asia from another GeoMetWatch customer with no additional charge,” Crain said.

 

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