Moving deeper into Earth orbit, with another nascent commercial-space app, is PLANETiQ, which is fund-raising to field a constellation of small commercial weather satellites that it hopes can attract some of the $6 billion the world's weather services spend collecting data for their forecasts each year.
“We represent a new model of public/private collaboration, in developing a network of small satellites for sustained and cost-effective rapid delivery of atmospheric data,” says Anne Miglarese, the PLANETiQ president and CEO.
The concept involves 12 satellites weighing 75 kg (165 lb.) each, spaced around the globe. Using a technique called GPS Radio Occultation, which extracts temperature, pressure and humidity profiles from measurements of how much the atmosphere bends GPS signals as they pass through it, the company plans to market the data as a low-cost alternative to sounders and other weather-satellite instruments, with the fast-turnaround data delivery—3 min. after observation—particularly advantageous in tracking hurricanes as they approach landfall.
“I would argue that atmospheric data is moving in the same direction that brought us the plethora of imaging, both commercial and government, with the failure of the [National Reconnaissance Office's Future Imaging Architecture],” says Miglarese. “It was that burning platform that opened up the commercial opportunities for [Digital Globe] and GeoEye, and allowed them to thrive. We have a very similar situation with weather . . . with the serious delays and overruns that have occurred at NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]; the same with the [Defense Meteorological Satellite Program] at the Air Force.”
The Bethesda, Md.-based company is o't alone in hoping to build a commercial market for satellite weather data. GeoMetWatch Corp. already has started building a hyperspectral imager for weather applications that it hopes to fly as a hosted payload, and is on the verge of announcing an Asian-regional satellite as its host (AW&ST Feb. 25, p. 18). Both companies are aiming to lower the cost of weather observation from orbit.
The first 12 PLANETiQ satellites will cost an estimated $155 million, including launch, Miglarese says. The satellites will also carry two instruments for monitoring damaging high-energy particles from solar storms, to help satellite operators protect their expensive birds from space weather.
Launches could begin 28-30 months after the start of manufacturing, Miglarese says, and it will cost at least $40 million for that to happen by the targeted July 1 date. While the needed technology is straightforward, financing is the real hurdle.
“We've been to two of the major finance houses,” she says. “Both are very interested. But there are some very inherent risks for them, and those risks aren't about technology [or the] launch. The market clearly understands those risks, and can mitigate for them. The risk is in not having a proven market.”
Other new-space startups are going after traditional markets, but in very untraditional ways. Like Columbus sailing off into the sunset to find spices that would fetch a fortune back home in Europe, some experienced space entrepreneurs are talking seriously about mining asteroids and the Moon for precious metals and water. The water can be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen for the propellant and life support that will be needed to exploit and explore space. The metals are precious for good reason.