February 25, 2013
Credit: Space Systems/Loral
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, the Defense Department and 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. Government Accountability Office 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.”