GeoMetWatch hyperspectral atmospheric sounderIt was my mother who first alerted me to the impending crisis in weather forecasting. Because funding has declined, America’s current 90-satellite fleet of Earth-observing satellites will drop to just 20 by 2020.

My mother has been an avid weather watcher since the ’80s, when my family moved from Southern California to Minneapolis, where tornadoes and thunderstorms and snowstorms made a big impression on us. But in this age of superstorms and devastating hurricanes, we all have reason to be weather obsessed. This isn’t the time to let go of our investment in weather satellites.

Fortunately, private industry is stepping in to fill the gap left by government-funded programs.

A Utah State spinoff called GeoMetWatch plans to launch so-called hyperspectral atmospheric sounders into geosynchronous orbit, picking up where a cancelled NASA program called GIFTS left off. GIFTS, for Geosynchronous Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer, was to advance the art of weather forecasting from conventional low Earth orbit cameras that observe in the visible spectrum.

GeoMetWatch will take off from NASA’s initial $400 million investment in this technology with smaller sensors that will hitch rides on geosynchronous communications satellite launches. The instruments, positioned so that they can observe the same area continuously, will be able to collect data in multiple bands across the spectrum to measure water vapor, the concentration of various gases, wind velocities, and more over time and through varying levels of the atmosphere. The press rep who contacted me about this calls it 4D imaging, which seems apt since the sensors will build up a 3D picture of the atmosphere over time, the fourth dimension.

If all goes well, the first sensor will go up on an Asian communications satellite to cover the Asia Pacific region starting in 2016.