Could Privately Funded Orbiters Fill The Looming Weather Satellite Gap?

Without global coverage, weather (and climate) prediction models will get things wrong.

Hurricane Sandy
Hurricane SandyNASA GOES Project

Pictures like the one above, showing Hurricane Sandy, are captured by satellites owned and operated by our federal government. But we may be facing a looming gap in American weather-watching abilities. Could a private company fill it?

Bethesda, Md.-based PlanetIQ wants to launch 12 small satellites into low-Earth orbit, where they would collect weather data that could be used for forecasts and climate models. It could be cheaper and lower-risk than other publicly-funded satellites, the company recently argued before Congress.

PlanetIQ, which has never launched a satellite before, would sell its data to government weather services around the world. It would also like to sell info to the U.S. Air Force.

Why is this an issue? The United States has a whole fleet of weather satellites in various orbital positions, which are used to inform long-term climate models as well as the computers that predict our daily weather. (Some are polar-orbiting satellites that show the whole Earth every morning and afternoon, and others are geostationary satellites that stare constantly at the U.S.) But they're getting old, and new equipment has been plagued by delays and political problems.

Depending on launch schedules and how long our existing equipment lasts, we're looking at a data collection gap of between 17 and 53 months, according to a recent report. That means less accurate and less timely forecasts. The government is sufficiently worried about it to include weather satellites in a "high-risk report" to Congress, provided every two years by the Government Accountability Office.

"Such degradation in forecasts and warnings would place lives, property, and our nation's critical infrastructures in danger," the GAO says. You can read the report here.

The recently launched Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, which captured that amazing Blue Marble image of Earth, is supposed to mitigate this gap. Suomi NPP started out as a demo satellite for a new partnership between civilian agencies and the Defense Department. But a decade of cost overruns and other problems turned it into a civilian project between NASA and NOAA. It's only supposed to last five years, and might only last three--at a cost of $1.5 billion. Meanwhile, next-generation equipment is still languishing in warehouses.

Suomi NPP has been crucial in helping forecasters accurately predict storms like Sandy several days in advance, however. Without it, Sandy forecasts would have been wrong, according to testimony from PlanetIQ's CEO, Anne Hale Miglarese: "Without observations from satellites that orbit our planet from pole to pole, we now know that the computer model which predicted Hurricane Sandy would slam into the Northeast U.S. five days in advance would have instead showed the storm staying out to sea," Miglarese testified.

So should private companies send satellites to space and sell the data to our cash-strapped government? The private yet popular/populist site Weather Underground asked the weather service: "We welcome any reliable data that helps the National Weather Service meet its mission requirements, while also being cost-effective and properly reflected in our budget," NWS spokesman Chris Vaccaro told them in an e-mail.

Especially under sequestration, government science agencies could probably use all the help they can get. But selling weather data, presumably for a comfortable profit, is definitely uncharted territory.