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Weather: The winds of change are coming The first era of commercial satellite imaging is now behind us. Its end was signified by the merger earlier this year of GeoEye into DigitalGlobe to become one large provider of high-resolution satellite imagery to governments, militaries, intelligence agencies, private businesses and your occasional search engine portal. However jostling the journey, it can at least be said that this section of the commercial satellite imaging industry has finally reached some maturity. With a market cap hovering around $2 billion, a diverse set of clients and stable revenue base, only 50% of which is from the U.S. government, DigitalGlobe has at least shown one model of how it is possible to transition a function once thought intrinsic to government over to the private sector. All it took was a decade of inconsistent market growth, a few corporate restructurings and re-brandings, some launch failures, two global recessions, two major U.S. military engagements and three major governmental support programs. As with most things in life, no one said it would be easy. All chiding aside, we are glad to see yet another satellite industry to go from where government is the owner, operator and sole customer to where it is ‘just’ another, albeit large, customer and shareholders own the owner/operators. It happened in the fixed telecom services business and the high resolution imagery market is starting to look that way too, even if the process ended with consolidation down to one firm. But no rest for the weary - the second era of commercial satellite imaging already has no shortage of challengers to the champion. For instance, Astrium’s recently launched Pleiades satellites offer DigitalGlobe-level high resolution imagery. Moreover, in the mid 1 to 5 meter resolution range, newer players such as Skybox Imaging, Cosmogia and Blackbridge’s RapidEye constellation should provide competition on temporal as well as spatial resolution, betting that hordes of cheap small satellites can provide greater value from frequent revisits and video than the value sacrificed by using lower resolution. In the case of the first two, both Silicon Valley firms backed by venture capital, it will be a chance to see how hacker entrepreneurialism can take on the traditional satellite industry. We do think that they can give big aerospace a run for its money on cost, but we’re particularly eager to see how an open source attitude to data analytics can open up imagery to large new commercial markets while enabling new

DigitalGlobe has shown one model of how it is possible to transition a function once thought intrinsic to government over to the private sector

In the case of the Silicon Valley firms it will be a chance to see how hacker entrepreneurialism can take on the traditional satellite industry

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capabilities for government users. It fits right into the military’s new procurement mantra “Innovation, Resiliency, Affordability.” Outside of simple imagery, we already see more commercial cooperation with government in specialized areas like hyperspectral imagery and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data. Both Astrium and MacDonald Dettwiler are partnered with the German and Canadian governments respectively on SAR systems. Most of this data tends to be needed primarily by governments for land use surveys, botanical monitoring, coastal surveillance and border security so governments are the funders and the primary customers of these systems. But, even in these cases the private operator shares risk and profit by building, launching and operating the systems while providing services to their anchor government customer. This arrangement has allowed governments to keep a lid on costs while allowing commercial demand to emerge. one wonders what other similar tasks can be implemented with creative public private partnerships in the satellite sector. In most cases, the arrangement works well enough that one wonders what other similar tasks can be implemented with creative public private partnerships in the satellite sector. While the most advanced spy satellites will always be too sensitive and most scientific craft too specialized in their mission and GPS/navigation too important as a universal free service, we do think there is one area that could benefit from a move into greater commercial involvement. One that huge swaths of the American and world economy depend on for accuracy and responsiveness, one everyone talks about but, as is often said, nobody does anything about. We refer specifically to weather. Weather satellites are in many ways the antithesis of new in the satellite industry. The first successful weather satellite, TIROS-1, was launched in April 1960, more than two years before Telstar, the first communications satellite. Today, weather satellites are an almost ubiquitous interface between satellite technology and the population as a whole, providing maps and forecasts right to the newspapers, the local news and to the computer screen. As much as 40% of the U.S. economy is affected by weather In the United States, the business of weather monitoring and forecasting is handled by NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS), a sprawling nationwide network of dozens of forecasting offices staffed with five thousand employees. Founded in 1870 as the Weather Bureau, it runs radar stations, deploys weather balloons and analyses weather satellite data in cooperation with NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information

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Service (NESDIS). NESDIS, for its part, operates the satellites, specifically a mix of 9 polar orbiting and geostationary spacecraft from which it generates, among others, most of those ubiquitous forecast maps. For the most part, the NWS does its job well and, aside from the usual grumbling about missed forecasts, usually does not catch the ire of the public. Even the most hardcore of small government conservatives would concede that weather forecasting is a critical role of the government, at a very minimum for national security. But weather forecasting is important, darn it, often too important to be left just to a free government monopoly. As much as 40%1 of the U.S. economy is affected by weather; from financial services, logistics and utilities to transportation, agriculture and recreation. More specifically, it is believed as much as 3.4% of U.S. GDP can be swung by variability in weather patterns2. That’s over a half a trillion dollars of productivity. For this reason, a few private enterprises, such as the famous AccuWeather (www.accuweather.com) and slightly less famous WSI (www.wsi.com) and MDA Information Systems (www.mdaus.com), have formed over the years to make use of their own techniques, systems and networks of observations to augment the NWS. They provide a critical alternative set of products that are valued (and more notably, paid for) by financial organizations, large corporations and media organization nation and world-wide. But while the forecasting and analysis side of weather has a mature and thriving commercial sector, the actual business and operations of collecting raw data from the sky is still government dominated. We think this is somewhat a shame for, as much as the NOAA NESDIS fleet has shown to have done a fine job until now, there is also so much more that it can do to leverage new technologies and innovative new means of collecting weather data. Opening themselves up to public private partnerships to development and operate their next generation satellites is something we would like them to consider, but so far the organization has been adamantly opposed to pursuing in practice. That is why we cheered when we saw the recent news of a startup called GeoMetWatch (www.geometwatch.com) announcing a $185 million development and hosting deal with telecom satellite operator AsiaSat.
1

while the forecasting and analysis side of weather has a mature and thriving commercial sector, the actual business and operations of collecting raw data from the sky is still government dominated

Dutton, J. A., 2002: Opportunities and priorities in a new era for weather and climate services. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 83, 1303–1311. 2 Lazo, Jeffrey K., Megan Lawson, Peter H. Larsen, Donald M. Waldman, 2011: U.S. Economic Sensitivity to Weather Variability. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 92, 709–720.

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an exciting leap of faith that we hope can garner committed customers for their weather data.

GeoMetWatch’s plan is to mount Utah State University-developed hyperspectral STORM™ sounder sensors onto six geostationary satellites to provide enhanced commercial weather data to customers worldwide. According to the GMW website, the STORM™ sensors were based on earlier NASA sounding sensors and aim to “revolutionize the prediction of localized severe weather; reduce tropical cyclone path and landfall forecast errors; and improve initialization of global numerical weather prediction models”. AsiaSat, for its part, is providing the satellite hosting and financing in partnership with GeoMetWatch for a share in the revenues of the venture. On a first level, this is a great example of a hosted payload arrangement that is a full partnership between both parties. On a second level, it is an exciting leap of faith that we hope can garner committed customers for their weather data. Two other commercial ventures, PlanetIQ (www.planetiq.com) and GeoOptics (www.geooptics.com) backed by various aerospace companies are pursuing a method called GPS Radio Occultation (or GPS-RO) which uses constellations of small satellites to measure the transmission characteristics of GPS signals as they travel through the atmosphere, the data from which provides critical global measurements of atmospheric density, temperature and moisture content. It is particularly useful for vertical resolution and global 3D coverage of the atmosphere. While these measurements are currently performed by a joint U.S./Taiwan constellation called COSMIC that was launched in 2006, both companies cite the need for a longer term replacement with better global resolution from commercial solutions involving much larger constellations of these sensors. We hope that the increasingly developed infrastructure for building and deploying small satellites will play to their advantage.

GPS-RO provides critical global measurements of atmospheric density, temperature and moisture content

Not all commercial ideas for improving weather data collection and forecasting are satellite-based. Also in recent news was the report that Panasonic Avionics had acquired AirDat’s (www.airdat.com) Tropospheric Airborne Meteorological Data Reporting (TAMDAR) technology. TAMDAR is mounted on a network of commercial airliners and records a sophisticated collection of readings from take-off into the upper atmosphere in locations, in frequencies and at times of day not easily attained by weather balloons. The technology should benefit greatly from being in the hands of Panasonic, which has much experience providing on board equipment for commercial airliners and can support a more

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muscular marketing effort to prove the value of the resulting forecasts. We think highly of all these ventures, but we again note the conspicuous absence of what we think should be one of the most important partners of all these efforts, NOAA. No doubt they have legitimate concerns and objections to who controls the data sources for critical weather information and who gets priority, but many of these objections were also made in the early days of the commercial satellite imaging industry. One of the ways the early commercial satellite imaging companies gained market acceptance and stability was the careful support it got from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) through successive purchasing and capital assistance programs, particularly the multibillion dollar ClearView, NextView and EnhancedView programs. Through these programs, the NGA enhanced its access to reconnaissance data but also got a say in resolving security and priority concerns that were important to the U.S. intelligence community. Although NOAA NESDIS maintains an Office of Space Commercialization, we know of no program of similar scale to NGA’s. The fact that a U.S. company like GeoMetWatch had to go beyond the U.S. and partner with an Asian satellite operator shows the work that needs to be done to change the ways of doing business. Perhaps that announcement will do some much needed turning of heads at NOAA and in Congress. It is time for NOAA to stop dragging its feet on commercialization and help unleash the creative talents of a free market to bring these new more accurate weather technologies to the end users – basically everyone. What American tax payers do not need is more delayed drastically over budget programs like NPOESS. We need commercialization supported by a robust public – private partnership. In a broader view, in an age where any peasant with a smartphone can look at the world’s beauty through Google Maps at will, it bears remembering what the world from above looked like before the age of commercial imagery and ubiquitous digitization. The first age of satellite imagery was for spies and a select handful of government scientists and geographers deemed worthy of access to these amazing space cameras. Then Landsat and other civilian cameras came along and then it was finally open to knowledgeable researchers who knew how to handle and process the indecipherable mounds of data starting to come from these devices. The products of that era produced many an inspiring wall poster but, even then, it lacked a certain touch.

It is time for NOAA to stop dragging its feet on commercialization and help unleash the creative talents of a free market

The first age of satellite imagery was for spies and a select handful of government scientists and geographers deemed worthy of access

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Commercial was playful, creative, innovative, even when nakedly self promoting. What a joy

Then came IKONOS, the first commercial imaging satellite launched by then operator Space Imaging. I remember it well. Where once satellite imagery data was confusing and drab in engagement, the IKONOS photos were exciting and broke the mold. Home screens on the Space Imaging website would show crisp high resolution images of Olympic facilities, elaborate cityscapes, strange landscapes, even the filming location of the newest Survivor season. Every week would be a new featured photo. Commercial was playful, creative, innovative, even when nakedly self promoting. What a joy. Even though much of their revenue base would still be dependent on the government, here was a group of people who knew how to bring life to their product in ways that being within a government organization would never allow. When it comes to commercial weather offerings, we might prefer accuracy and timeliness above joyfulness, but we still can enjoy the creativity of entrepreneurial capitalism in trying new techniques and technologies. For the sake of the potential benefits of these new weather ventures, we say with earnestness, that we hope that neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these satellites from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

By Ian Fichtenbaum Near Earth LLC

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