The CubeSats are going federal.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made its first foray into supporting commercial weather satellites on 15 September, awarding $1.065 million in pilot contracts to two California-based startups, GeoOptics and Spire Global, to evaluate their data for potential broader use.
The small deals—$695,000 to GeoOptics and $370,000 to Spire—come as part of NOAA's Commercial Weather Data Pilot. The deals will allow the agency to evaluate the quality of the firms' data for forecasts and warnings, and could be the first step in a broader embrace of commercial satellites. Until now, NOAA has gathered data by building and launching its own expensive weather satellites rather than buying data from private companies.
Beyond his own company, this is an important step for the country, says Peter Platzer, Spire Global's CEO in San Francisco, California, in a phone call. "There is now a pathway for more participation of the private sector in helping NOAA's mission of ensuring a weather-ready nation."
Spire currently has 12 of its shoebox-sized CubeSats, called “Lemurs,” in low-Earth orbit—all that's necessary to meet NOAA's requirements, Platzer says. It has five more launches booked by year's end, with each launch carrying another six satellites, on average. GeoOptics has not yet deployed any of the small satellites in its planned constellation, but it is scheduled to launch three of them on a Soyuz 2 rocket from Kazakhstan by January 2017.
"This approach is a win-win solution, as both NOAA and the commercial firms will gain a trial run of the NOAA evaluation process, a necessary first step to considering sustained operational use of new commercial weather data," said Karen St. Germain, director of the Office of Systems Architecture and Advanced Planning at NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service in Washington, D.C., in a statement.
Spire and GeoOptics both employ GPS radio occultation on their small satellites, a technique that harvests GPS signals deflected by Earth's atmosphere. From these signals, they can infer temperature, pressure, and humidity at various altitudes. A constellation of satellites can gather thousands of daily readings, as GPS satellites dip and rise above the horizon. It's one of the most promising techniques in weather forecasting in a generation, and is already used on government-owned constellations, including the six microsatellites that were launched in the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC), a joint project between NOAA and Taiwan.
Plagued by cost overruns on its own satellites, NOAA has been pressured by Congress to explore commercial weather satellites, which included a mandate for the commercial weather pilot in its 2016 appropriations. Several leaders in the House of Representatives, including Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, applauded the agency's move.
"NOAA’s first of hopefully many awards will provide innovative private sector weather data to enhance our weather forecasting capabilities," Smith said in a statement.
The two companies will be required to deliver their weather data by the end of April 2017. NOAA will evaluate and report on their suitability for operations later that year.