Weather satellites are no longer a technology solely operated and leveraged by big government. On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded contracts to two private companies to join the government in acquiring weather data from space for the purpose of improving weather forecasts.
These contracts may mark the start of a new era — in which private companies are given incentives to launch weather satellites and sell their data to the government.
Satellites from GeoOptics and Spire provide GPS radio occultation data from which scientists can glean information about the temperature and moisture at different layers of Earth’s lower atmosphere. The data can then be fed into computer models to provide better weather forecasts.
“We are thrilled to partner with NOAA on this exciting new chapter in weather prediction,” said GeoOptics chief executive Conrad Lautenbacher, who also served as NOAA administrator under President George W. Bush. “We look forward to demonstrating that commercial satellite data purchases can enable the unmatched efficiencies of the private sector to help NOAA accomplish its vital mission to protect and inform the public.”
The contracts were awarded as part of NOAA’s Commercial Weather Data Pilot, established to “assess the potential viability of commercial weather data in weather modeling and forecasting.” Congress appropriated $3 million for the program in fiscal year 2016.
The push for more private sector involvement in the acquisition of weather data from space comes after years of delays and cost overruns in the federal government’s weather satellite programs.
NOAA’s weather satellites are huge — the approximate size of small buses — and cost billions of dollars to develop, launch and operate. The satellites operated by GeoOptics and Spire are around the size of a shoe box and cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I am encouraged that NOAA is listening to congressional calls to consider a paradigm shift by beginning to seriously consider all options to better predict weather,” said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. “NOAA’s first of hopefully many awards will provide innovative private sector weather data to enhance our weather forecasting capabilities.”
“With the awarding of multiple contracts, NOAA has shown that there is great potential for the government to leverage this new industry,” added Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Science Committee subcommittee on environment.
Spire has already launched 12 satellites capable of acquiring weather data.
“Spire is at the forefront of using small satellites, cubesats, to do things such as radio occultation that formerly required large and expensive satellites,” said Alexander MacDonald, director of numerical weather prediction at Spire Global, who previously directed NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. “There are many valuable environmental sensors that can be made small enough and cheaply enough, using these small satellites, to revolutionize our ability to observe the Earth.”
GeoOptics plans to launch five satellites in the next nine months and 24 in the next four years according to Lautenbacher.
While GeoOptics and Spire Global were awarded this first contract by NOAA, another company, PlanetiQ, also has plans to launch weather satellites in 2017.
“We congratulate NOAA on beginning the process of data buys for atmospheric data, and the winners of this pilot program for data evaluation,” said Chris McCormick, chief executive of PlanetiQ. “While our high-performance operational data will not be available in time for this initial assessment round, we look forward to entering the market next year.”