Satellite Company Claims It Can Fill Weather Data Gap

By Valerie Insinna

PlanetIQ Constellation

The United States is facing a gap in collecting data from polar-orbiting satellites that help predict the weather, according to the Government Accountability Office’s 2013 high risk report.

The GAO projects a 17- to 53-month gap starting as early as 2014 between the time the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System’s preparatory project satellite stops running and the Joint Polar Satellite System is sent into space.

Executives at PlanetIQ, a joint venture by several space companies, say they can solve the problem by launching a constellation of 12 low-Earth orbit satellites that use a method called GPS radio occultation (GPS-RO) to determine temperature, atmospheric pressure and humidity.
However, they need a first customer to help finance the launch and are eyeing the Air Force and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as possible buyers.

The biggest issue is getting government organizations used to the idea that they would be paying for data, said Anne Miglarese, PlanetIQ’s president and chief executive officer.

“Space-based atmospheric data is collected entirely by governments around the globe who are used to designing, building, flying and owning all of their own systems, and then distributing that data for free around the globe,” she said, adding she was confident that PlanetIQ would be able to design and operate its own system at equal or below what it would cost the government.

The company is currently meeting with the Air Force, NOAA and national weather prediction centers in Europe. If given the go ahead, Planet IQ could launch its constellation in as little as 28 months, Miglarese said.

GPS-RO is a technique in which a GPS satellite in medium-Earth orbit sends out a radio signal to a low-Earth orbit satellite. That signal is bent in the Earth’s atmosphere, and the low-Earth orbit satellite can calculate atmospheric density based on the angle of the bend.

Currently, the United States receives GPS-RO observations through six satellites launched as a joint research mission with Taiwan, called the constellation observing system for meteorology, ionosphere and climate or COSMIC.

Data latencies for COSMIC are anywhere from 15 to 100 minutes, but PlanetIQ’s system would be able to deliver an observation within three minutes, Miglarese said.

A follow-on mission, COSMIC-2, is planned for launch in 2017, but it would focus on the equatorial belt and not cover the United States, she said. PlanetIQ’s constellation would span the entire globe.

“Should you be relying on a research mission that has no constant programmatic funding for an operational need of the United States Air Force?” she said. “I think that is a risk that is big and unnecessary.”

Photo Credit: Moog Inc.

Topics: Science and Engineering Technology, Space

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