PlanetIQ announces highest-performance radio occultation satellite

PlanetIQ executives are delighted with weather data being acquired by the Golden, Colorado, firm’s first operational satellite launched in June. So delighted, in fact, that the company is raising money to accelerate its campaign to establish a 20-satellite Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) radio occultation constellation by 2024.

“Based upon the demonstrated metrics of our initial spacecraft, we are raising more capital to expedite deployment of our constellation,” PlanetIQ CEO Steve Joanis told SpaceNews.

PlanetIQ was founded in 2012 by scientists and engineers who worked on multiple government-sponsored missions and radio occultation payloads including the U.S.-Taiwanese Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC), its successor COSMIC-2, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute’s KOMPSAT-5, and Airbus Defence and Space satellites TerraSAR-X, Tandem-X and Paz. Their goal in establishing PlanetIQ was to build the world’s highest-performance radio occultation mission based on the number of daily readings acquired and the sensor’s signal-to-noise ratio.

With PlanetIQ’s GNSS Navigation and Occultation Measurement Satellite (GNOMES) 2, launched June 30 on the SpaceX Falcon 9 Transporter-2 rideshare mission, company executive say they achieved that goal.

“Not only is the GNOMES-2 quality even higher than the COSMIC-2 instrument, which our team built in 2012, but it’s also the lowest cost per reading,” Joanis said.

GNOMES-2 acquires 2,500 daily radio occultation soundings with a large-aperture radio occultation antenna that tracks the four GNSS constellations: the U.S. Global Positioning System, Europe’s Galileo, Russia’s Glonass and China’s Beidou.

Radio occultation soundings are key inputs for numerical weather models because, like weather balloons, they show temperature, pressure and humidity through an atmospheric column. Satellite soundings also extend through the ionosphere and provide global coverage, including over the oceans where few weather balloons are released.

A high signal-to-noise ratio is particularly important for radio occultation missions that seek to provide data near Earth’s surface. Numerical weather prediction centers often dismiss radio occultation soundings for the lowest two kilometers of Earth’s atmosphere due to concern about their accuracy.

“Variations of water vapor and temperature in the lower troposphere can cause an optical mirage effect,” said Chris McCormick, PlanetIQ founder and chairman. “This phenomenon also occurs in the RF frequencies used for radio occultations. The higher signal to noise enables you to determine if this phenomenon is present or not.”

Without observations of water vapor near the ground, forecasts can underestimate the severity of hurricanes or other severe weather, McCormick added.

PlanetIQ is currently supplying satellite data for evaluation to the U.S. Air Force. Meanwhile, company executives are meeting with representatives of other government agencies that acquire radio occultation data including NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“We wanted to make sure that we had pristine data to actually show them that it’s better than COSMIC and COSMIC-2,” McCormick said.

PlanetIQ experienced setbacks before the latest launch. The firm’s first satellite launched in 2018 failed to function in orbit. As a result, PlanetIQ was unable to deliver data in the early phases of NOAA’s Commercial Weather Data Pilot.

Meanwhile commercial competitors, Spire Global and GeoOptics, established radio occultation constellations and began supplying data to customers including NASA, NOAA and the U.S. Air Force.

Looking on the bright side, PlanetIQ executives point to their “second mover advantage,” meaning competitors helped establish the market for commercial radio occultation soundings and government agencies have created mechanisms for ingesting commercial data.

Commercial weather data startups also have attracted investors. Spire began trading stock publicly Aug. 17, after merging with a special purpose acquisition company in a deal that raised about $265 million. Tomorrow.io, formerly called ClimaCell, raised $77 million from private investors for a weather satellite constellation.

“The recent financings of Spire and companies such as Tomorrow.io and ClimaVision have set the stage for our financing,” Joanis said.

PlanetIQ is integrating and testing GNOMES-3, a satellite scheduled to launch in March on the SpaceX Transporter-4 rideshare flight to sun synchronous orbit. At the same time, the company is updating technology for its next generation of satellites.

After GNOMES-3, PlanetIQ plans to launch satellites in pairs to establish a 20-satellite constellation capable of providing 50,000 daily radio occultation soundings.

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