Weather Predictions Are Getting Better Thanks To New, Tiny Satellites

The startup Spire will soon have a “constellation” of 100 weather-measuring satellites floating above Earth.

The consequences of bad weather forecasting are often expensive and dangerous. Not knowing until the last minute that a bad storm is going to arrive can leave homes and businesses unprepared. Or, a city may end up spending to prepare for a massive weather-related disruption that never actually materializes.

Sometimes bad weather forecasting is the product of bad forecasters or computer models. But other times it comes down to poor or incomplete data. And that’s where Spire, a startup that is launching the world’s first private weather satellite network, wants to step in.

It used to be a that you had to be a big aerospace company or a government to launch a massive satellite, costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Spire is one of a wave of new startups that are, instead, launching hundreds of cheap, tiny, low-orbiting satellites, called Cubesats, into space. They are about the size of a shoe box, which means they’re small enough enough to hitch a ride with other launches, saving a lot of money on getting them to space. But most CubeSat startups are focusing on providing better satellite images. Spire, says CEO Peter Platzer, is the only company focused on weather data.

Today, weather satellites are run by a handful of governments; there are fewer than 20 in the world. Many, including America’s network, are aging and not being replaced quickly enough–leaving growing gaps in coverage.

In the last year, Spire has launched four satellites and raised $40 million from investors. It now has 80 staff in three offices in San Francisco, Singapore, and Glasgow and plans to open a fourth in Colorado soon. It has scheduled a launch a month for the next 20 months, until it has finished its planned 100-satellite “constellation.” “We have yet to improve weather prediction, because we don’t have enough data yet. But we will in the coming months,” says Platzer.

Spire satellites collect data using a relatively new technology in weather data collection called GPS-Radio Occultation (GPR-RO). The technology involves sensing how signals from other satellites–GPS satellites–are distorted as they move through the Earth’s atmosphere. Using that data, they can more accurately calculate air temperature, pressure, and moisture conditions.

Traditionally large, expensive weather satellites only provide 1,500 readings a day. Spire says by this summer it will provide 10,000 readings a day, and by next year, 100,000–making it the world’s largest weather satellite network.

The company just hired Dave Ector, who managed COSMIC-1, the first program to demonstrate the viability of GPS-RO technology in weather forecasting. When the European weather forecasting model incorporated COSMIC-1 readings, it saw a 9% reduction in errors–the largest improvement to forecast accuracy in two decades. U.S. National Weather Service director said the COSMIC-1 satellites made “fundamental” improvements to forecast models–the problem is governments aren’t able to launch more satellites quickly enough.

Ector, Platzer says, will help Spire scale up its satellite network and data product. Ector’s name, he says, also comes with credibility that will help sell its data to people who make weather and longer-term climate predictions. Spire is just starting to license its data to private and public customer that Platzer says he can’t disclose.

With each Cubesat launch, Spire’s weather data will improve. “It’s the difference between taking pictures and taking a video,” says Platzer. “Every single picture is a standalone image describing a certain situation, but what makes it powerful is the rapid sequence of pictures …that lets you see how something changes.”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.