Private-sector satellite companies are increasingly seen as players in weather forecasting
When the novel coronavirus pandemic grounded a large portion of air traffic worldwide in March and April, Peter Platzer saw an opportunity. The Luxembourg-based CEO of the satellite firm Spire Global offered up his company’s weather data free to some of the top weather forecasting centers around the world.
With thousands of flights grounded, weather forecasters were sounding alarm bells about lost data that could harm forecast accuracy. Sensors aboard commercial aircraft gather data that augments information from the weather balloon network at observation sites around the world.
Depriving computer models of the aircraft data threatened to erode forecast accuracy for all the major models in use, from the vaunted European model to the main U.S. model, known as the Global Forecast System, or GFS.
Spire, which has 88 tiny satellites, each the size of a loaf of bread, in low Earth orbit, gathers what’s known as radio occultation data, which can be used to develop profiles of moisture and other properties of the atmosphere. To help plug any aircraft-related holes in data gathering, the company offered its data free to the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts and the United Kingdom Met Office.
So far, it would seem those agencies are pleased by the proof of concept, although it’s not clear the data has been a game-changer for them. In a statement, John Eyre, a fellow at the Met Office, said radio occultation data helps improve weather forecast accuracy in general.
“We have used RO data from other satellites for many years, and we know their value for improving our weather forecasts. The offer of data from Spire is very welcome. It will make a valuable contribution to mitigating the loss of other weather observations during the COVID-19 period,” Eyre said, referencing the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Spire’s satellites, which it has named LEMURs, for low-Earth multiuse receivers, also collect maritime and aircraft tracking information, providing the company with another source of revenue.
Radio occultation can be thought of as akin to a space-based scan of the atmosphere, and it allows meteorologists to gain observations of atmospheric temperature and moisture using a satellite receiver that measures signals sent by GPS and other navigation satellite systems.
The signal between the two satellites gets refracted, and information about the temperature and water vapor content of the atmosphere can be gleaned from the magnitude of this refraction.
NASA deal marks a key step for Spire, and for similar companies
Now the company, which has raised $150 million in five funding rounds, has taken another step that puts it ahead of some competitors in the race to supplement weather data gathered by far larger and more expensive government-procured satellites. The company inked a one-year, $7 million deal with NASA to provide it with radio occultation data, which will be available to agency scientists for use in their Earth-observing missions.