Commercial communications satellites are old news, and commercial remote-sensing satellites make imagery from Cold War reconnaissance satellites look quaint. Commercial cargo vehicles are arriving at the International Space Station, and commercial crew vehicles are on the way.
Now a Las Vegas-based startup is taking another step in the direction of expanding human commerce into low Earth orbit—in the form of commercial weather satellites.
But as a commercial venture, GeoMetWatch Corp. isn't following the government paradigm of orbiting dedicated weather satellites with a handful of infrared and visible light-imaging channels. Instead, it is building on a government development that has gone unused to build hosted payloads that will fly piggyback on commercial geosynchronous communications satellites, sending back hyperspectral data in a continuous stream.
The first one is already in work at the new Advanced Weather Systems laboratory in Logan, Utah, the home of Utah State University. Known as “Storm,” for Sounding and Tracking Observatory of Regional Meteorology, the box-shaped hyperspectral imager would be bolted to the Earth-facing surfaces of at least six satcoms scattered around the equator. Integrated into the host spacecraft's power and data systems, the Storm units are expected to provide staring capability with a 2-km (1.2-mi.) resolution—in three dimensions when a full constellation is in orbit—that GeoMetWatch believes will provide weather-tracking capability three orders of magnitude better than today's system of Doppler radars and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES).
For forecasters at the U.S. National Weather Service, theand commercial operations such as The Weather Channel, the projected improvements will come as overall U.S. capability is threatened by tight federal budgets. The Nevada company cites the National Research Council finding that the “precipitous decline” in the U.S. weather-satellite system could lead to a “slowing or even reversal” of past gains in forecasting accuracy.
“Our current capability to adequately monitor and predict severe weather over the U.S. is threatened to the point that we must rely on satellite missions flown by Europe and China to meet our basic weather observation requirements,” David Crain, GeoMetWatch's CEO, testified in Congress last year.
Crain's testimony was underscored Feb. 14 when the U.S.added the mitigation of gaps in federal weather satellite data to its list of the “highest-risk” programs. “The importance of such data was recently highlighted by the advance warnings of the path, timing and intensity of Superstorm Sandy,” the GAO states.
“A possible solution, we believe at GeoMetWatch, is the hosted-payload approach, where you have a very predictable launch cadence from the commercial satellite integrators,” says aerospace consultant William Readdy, a former space shuttle commander who is chairman of the company's board of directors. “We have an instrument that we know how to build, and a template that we think is very achievable, on the order of 36 months, which fits nicely with the typical build cycle of a commercial [communications] satellite.”
GeoMetWatch plans to use hyperspectral weather technology developed with $400 million in U.S. government funding at the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan. The Geosynchronous Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer (Gifts) was tested and calibrated on the ground as an engineering unit for the, which runs the GOES constellation, but it never flew.
Now doing business as the Advanced Weather Systems, the same engineering team is building the first Storm payload for GeoMetWatch, which has a U.S. Commerce Department license to deploy at least six of the payloads to provide global, overlapping coverage.
Although there will soon be a need for new weather sensors in the U.S., Readdy says the company has concentrated initially on the Asia-Pacific region, where a number of factors have created a strong market for communications satellites like AsiaSat-5 (see photo) that could carry the Storm payload.
“We think the need is probably more acute over in Asia,” Readdy says. “The vulnerability [to dangerous weather] certainly is, with those island nations and all that highly populated coastline.”
Also driving the company's push in Asia is the expected U.S. strategic “pivot” to the area, with its increased requirement for precision weather data, Readdy notes. And “there is an awful lot more capital available in Asia right now,” he says.
In contrast to the U.S. government, which doesn't have a clear idea just how much money it will have to spend after the March 1 sequestration deadline, “in Asia, there's an awful lot more willingness to deploy capital, and certainly the governments in Asia seem very willing to participate,” he says.
GeoMetWatch anticipates its first payload will cost about $150 million to develop, integrate fly, Readdy says, with the price tag dropping as more payloads are built. “We're planning to get the first one up in 2016,” he said Feb. 13. “We're marching through some key milestones right now, and we expect to be able to announce an agreement with a major fleet operator in the next two weeks.”