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Utah State University advanced weather sensors going to space on Asian satellites

Published April 4, 2013 7:56 am

Weather contract • One of largest at USU-affiliated lab.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Advanced weather-sensing instruments built by a Utah State University-affiliated lab will get a ride into space on an Asian telecommunications satellite set to launch in 2016.

The agreement announced Wednesday advances a partnership with Las Vegas-based company GeoMetWatch that is the single largest applied engineering contract at a USU lab.

The satellite will be launched over the Pacific Rim by AsiaSat, a satellite TV and Internet company. From the vantage point of 22,000 miles above earth, the instrument could pick up weather data affecting most of the world's population, said Forrest Fackrell, chief development officer at GeoMetWatch.

"It's a big deal because it really gives us an international capability. It gives us a very significant hosting partner," he said.

The instrument, called a hyperspectral sounder, uses infrared sensors to predict storms more than eight hours earlier than current technology, said Robert Behunin, USU's vice-president of commercialization.

"Right now, we're just talking about minutes and sometimes even range-of-sight," he said. Better information could save lives and money with earlier natural disaster warnings and more exact evacuation zones.

The Sounding and Tracking Observatory for Regional Meteorology (STORM) instrument reads atoms' infrared light, or heat energy. It can produce images and track particles of water vapor, trace gases, volcanic ash and pollutants to predict floods, hurricanes, tornados, atmospheric pressure and other weather conditions. The instruments also could be used to measure and track the effects of climate change.

"Current weather satellites give you a 2-D sort of a picture image of what's going on," Behunin said. "STORM will give a 4-D cube."

Wednesday's agreement will give GeoMetWatch a much stronger platform to sell the weather data to businesses and governments.

"The fact that we have an operating agreement signed, a ride into space, that makes it more real," Behunin said.

GeoMetWatch envisions eventually covering the entire globe with six sounder-equipped satellites, but building each instrument costs more than $100 million and takes more than three years.

Twelve scientists in Logan started the first hyperspectral sounder in February with capital from GeoMetWach and the state-funded Utah Science Technology and Research initiative. Wednesday's agreement also will help secure the rest of the money to finish the work, Fackrell said.

"Confidence is very high that this will enable success in getting the instrument completed," he said. When the project is fully ramped up, it will employ 40 people at the new USU-affiliated lab Advanced Weather Systems Foundation, and some of those will be new hires, Behunin said.

The research on the project actually started more than 15 years ago with federal funding. NASA put $400 million into two advanced weather projects at USU's Space Dynamics Lab before pulling the plug when it got too expensive in 2006.

Two years later, some of the scientists working on the project formed GeoMetWatch, and got a license to finish the project privately.

"We're leveraging the investment the government has made in this technology and turning it into a commercial product," Fackrell said.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst