NOAA signals strong appetite for radio occultation

Space

BOSTON – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration seeks to dramatically increase the supply of radio occultation soundings it feeds into weather forecast models.

NOAA currently obtains slightly more than 2,000 soundings daily from its own satellites and those of its international partners. The agency has a target of acquiring 20,000 soundings per day, Steve Volz, NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services, said at the American Meteorological Society’s conference here.

Part of the solution is likely to come from the second U.S.-Taiwan Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC) constellation launched in July. The six-satellite COSMIC-2 constellation is currently producing about 4,000 daily soundings and is on track to meet its goal of producing 5,000 daily soundings, said Wei Xia-Serafino, NOAA COSMIC-2 program manager.

That would still leave NOAA far short of obtaining 20,000 daily soundings but the private sector is eager to make up the difference.

In 2018, NOAA awarded contracts to GeoOptics, PlanetIQ and Spire in its second Commercial Weather Data Pilot. NOAA officials declined to discuss the results, but said the agency is scheduled to complete its analysis this month.

NOAA’s budget targets indicate the promise of commercial weather data. The agency is requesting $23 million in 2021 and $33 million per year from 2022 through 2024 for commercial data pilots and data buys.

Still, the agency face challenges in working with commercial data. NOAA has a long tradition of working primarily with data supplied by its own satellites and those of its international government partners.

“How do we integrate commercial data into the global observing system,” Volz asked.

While NOAA wrestles with that question, companies are establishing or expanding radio occultation constellations and testing new technologies.

PlanetIQ is preparing to launch its first small radio occultation satellite into polar orbit in March on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The firm’s second satellite is scheduled to travel in July into dawn-to-dusk orbit on India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle.

From a business standpoint, PlanetIQ is doing well after raising $18.7 million and winning contracts from NOAA and the U.S. Air Force, said Michael McCarthy, PlanetIQ chief revenue officer.

PlanetIQ plans to fill out its constellation quickly, launching 18 to 20 radio occultation satellites between mid-2020 and mid-2022.

GeoOptics announced at the conference that its Cicero satellites produce “more than 500 high-quality occultations per day.”

GeoOptics began gathering radio occultation with its first operational Cicero satellite launched in January 2018. Ten months later, the firm started delivering data to NOAA for the Commercial Weather Data Pilot.

“We couldn’t be happier with how our team has performed over the last two years, both at GeoOptics and at our partners,” GeoOptics CEO Conrad Lautenbacher said in a statement.

GeoOptics launched two Cicero satellites in late 2018. In 2019, the firm expanded and updated its ground station network to speed up delivery of data to customers.

Spire Global, a firm with more than 80 cubesats in orbit, shared results at the conference from satellites performing Global Navigation Satellite System Reflectometry. Two Spire satellites equipped with bistatic radars observe how navigation satellite signals scatter after bouncing off Earth surface features.

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