Pasadena-Based Tech Company Playing Key Role in Mini Satellite Space Race

Published : Monday, February 19, 2018 | 6:45 AM

Mini Satellite Space Race

Image Courtesy GeoOptics Website

A Pasadena-based company that develops small radio occultation – or RO – satellites is playing a key role in what is becoming a new space race, one that features satellites that are roughly the size of a half-gallon milk carton and sprout antennas and solar panels.

The satellites are able to measure conditions in the atmosphere and on Earth’s surface with a precision that could vastly improve predictions of the weather and climate change.

These satellites are now beginning to fill the gaps in Earth’s observation systems, and may soon replace the much larger, far more expensive government-owned satellites used for weather observation, when they become obsolete.

A story on Climatewire, part of the E&E News network, in January told of how an Indian-made rocket, called PSLV-C37, soared 310 miles into the Earth’s ionosphere early last year and launched 104 space satellites, including 96 hand-sized orbiters built by U.S. companies and institutions.

That feat called attention to the new space race of tiny satellites, including those built by GeoOptics, the Pasadena-based company founded by Dr.Thomas Yunck, a former engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who in 1988 wrote the first proposal years earlier to use radio occultation to develop weather and climate information from GPS signals. Since then he has been involved in every aspect of the technology’s development and validation. Yunck is now Chairman of the Board and Chief Technology Officer of GeoOptics.
The idea of using small, inexpensive satellites to improve weather and climate data is the first of two U.S. government-sponsored innovations that evolved to make this possible. The second breakthrough is a new way of measuring atmospheric conditions from space, using radio occultation, or RO, as Conrad Lautenbacher, a former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), likes to call it.

Lautenbacher, after departing NOAA in 2008, became the chief executive of GeoOptics in Pasadena. The company in 2016 was awarded a data purchase contract from the NOAA under its Commercial Weather Data Pilot program – the first time NOAA has contracted to purchase satellite weather data from a commercial provider.

Under the contract, GeoOptics is launching a constellation of nanosatellites designed to create “the most detailed picture of the Earth’s atmosphere, surface and subsurface ever assembled,” according to a GeoOptics statement. The first satellites are deploying advanced Global Positioning System Radio Occultation (GPS-RO) sensors developed in partnership with JPL and Tyvak Nanosatellite Systems. Future satellites will expand upon and refine this technology and deploy several other technologies to provide a precise and complete picture of the Earth’s environment.

GeoOptics is aiming for an initial constellation of 24 of these nanosatellites, named CICERO, for Community Initiative for Cellular Earth Remote Observation.

GeoOptics will be in head-to-head competition with Spire Global Inc., based in San Francisco, says the Climatewire article. Spire had eight of its tiny Lemur satellites on the Indian rocket last year; it now has a total constellation of 52 operational satellites.

Launching these tiny satellites will mean huge savings for the U.S. government, which has been using weather satellites that cost billions to put in orbit.

Using four-inch standardized mini-satellites, called CubeSats, will cost only a few hundred thousands of dollars, and construction can be completed quickly and cheaply on assembly lines, says Lautenbacher.

He also predicts a point in time when a “long list” of private customers may also begin to buy private data from space. He said the technology could be even less expensive to produce in the future and appeal to a variety of private businesses, including insurance, construction, agriculture and transportation.

GeoOptics has its headquarters at 201 N. Orange Grove Blvd. Suite 503 in Pasadena.

For more information about the company, visit www.geooptics.com.

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