By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL (Reuters) - PlanetiQ, a privately owned company, is beginning a key test intended to pave the way for the first commercial weather satellites.
The Bethesda, Maryland-based company is among a handful of startups designing commercial weather satellite networks, similar to what companies like DigitalGlobe, Planet Labs and Google Inc’s Skybox Imaging are undertaking in the sister commercial satellite industry of remote sensing.
“I think weather is the next big market,” PlanetiQ's chief executive and president, Anne Hale Miglarese, said. She estimates the global weather data industry at more than $6 billion.
Although there are already privately held companies that provide weather forecasting services, they rely on data from government-owned satellites.
PlanetiQ plans to fly the first two miniature satellites of a 12-member network next year.
The satellites will be launched aboard a non-U.S. rocket and PlanetiQ will provide weather data in exchange for those flights, Miglarese said. She declined to disclose the company or agency providing the rocket launch.
Another 10 PlanetiQ satellites are slated for launch in 2017.
PlanetiQ is building the science instrument at the heart of the satellites. The overall spacecraft manufacturer will be disclosed later this month, Miglarese said.
The satellites, which will weigh about 55 pounds (25 kg) each, will be positioned about 497 miles (800 km) above the planet and inclined about 72 degrees north and south of the equator.
The satellites will track radio signals from the U.S. Global Positioning System, Russia’s Glasnoss, China’s BeiDou and Europe’s Galileo satellites as they pass through the atmosphere, relative to the PlanetiQ satellites' lines of sight.
The radio signals emitted by the navigation satellites change as they pass through different temperatures, pressures and levels of humidity in the atmosphere.
The data can then be incorporated into computer programs that predict local and regional weather and that model changes in the global climate.
GeoOptics and Spire are two other startups planning to build and operate fleets of low-orbiting satellites equipped with so-called GPS radio occultation sensors. Two more startups, Tempus Global Data and HySpecIQ, intend to fly a different type technology, called hyperspectral imaging, to collect similar atmospheric data.
Bills currently pending before Congress would establish a pilot program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to buy weather data commercially, among other initiatives to help the nascent industry.
(Editing by Leslie Adler)