Cloudy with a chance of space

Spire wants to improve weather forecasting with tiny satellites

Will you need a raincoat or shorts tomorrow? Chances are the weather data you use to determine the answer comes from the roughly 20 satellites orbiting Earth that monitor weather systems. And as we all know, their data isn’t always enough to produce a reliable forecast.

The Powersat3 Spire satellite.
The Lemur-1 Spire satellite.

Spire, a San Francisco startup that is currently testing a small group of shoebox-sized satellites, will announce Thursday that it will put its soon-to-launch fleet of commercial satellites to work collecting an unprecedented amount of weather data. Spire will have 20 satellites orbiting Earth by the end of this year, and at least 100 3.5 years from now if all goes according to plan. Together, the satellites will eventually provide 100 times more information.

“We want to take advantage of technology that’s available, technology that we have developed, and move weather forecasting into an entirely different realm,” CEO Peter Platzer said in an interview.

He likened the current state of weather forecasting to driving to a gas station and purchasing a paper map. With more satellites, the experience will be more akin to pulling up Google Maps on a mobile device.

Spire CEO Peter Platzer
Spire CEO Peter Platzer

Platzer foresees a public/private partnership that moves weather forecasting off of the government and onto private companies, which will be able to provide it for a fraction of the cost.

Spire’s satellites will measure the humidity, temperature and pressure — the three main ingredients of weather forecasting — of Earth’s atmosphere. The sensors are attached to satellites designed to only last a few years. There are so many that if one fails it doesn’t take down the entire system, and replacements with even newer technology will be launched frequently.

Spire is among a growing number of startups to be launching large constellations of satellites into space. Many of the earliest entrants, such as Planet Labs, have been focusing on imaging. Big players like SpaceX and Google are looking at satellite-based internet. Spire is the first to name weather as a major part of its business plan.

“We are just unwilling to accept that the way people think about the weather is just the way it is,” Platzer said. “We think it’s very un-Silicon Valley.”