Keeping a watchful eye on Earth observation and weather forecasting

Sept. 20, 2023

By Jim Romeo

The Earth observation (EO) industry continues to grow in technological innovation, which is driving investment opportunities for commercial and government applications. Innovations are capitalizing on new satellite communications that will improve Earth observation and subsequent weather forecasting.

"Earth weather and space weather imaging technology has made incredible leaps forward with each generation of weather satellites, and the GOES-R series of weather satellites Lockheed Martin has built for NOAA is no exception," says Jagdeep Shergill, director of geo weather programs, and lead of all Earth-related weather program execution at the Lockheed Martin Space segment in Denver.

In its first six months of operation, the U.S. Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-16 transmitted more weather data than all previous GOES-series weather satellites combined. "This is largely due to the state-of-the-art suite of six instruments aboard those spacecraft, Shergill says.

"For example, the main imager on these satellites, the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), provides three times more spectral information, four times the spatial resolution, and more than five times faster coverage than the previous generation imager -- leading to more timely refresh rates of images and more accurate forecasts that can save lives," Shergill continues.

"Another example is Lockheed Martin’s Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) aboard the satellites," Shergill says. "It provides better-than-ever lightning data, due to the special wavelength that it sees in -- day or night. GLM has enabled forecasters to observe increased lightning frequency in such intricate detail, that they’ve been able to correlate lightning intensification with tornado generation, and this has helped meteorologists to better predict where tornados will happen and issue earlier warnings to protect lives and property. That gives you an idea of the high-fidelity data that weather instruments these days are able to provide."

Earth-observation sensing

When it comes to Earth observation technology, it's important to note that it's not just a technology that applies deep into outer space; historically there has been much technology that is not so far away from Earth.

"The origins of remote sensing itself are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, says Kanna Rajan, a senior scientist at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif., and an expert on ocean observations and ocean weather.

Rajan emphasizes that it is important to note that Earth-observation remote sensing data does come just from space, but also is from high-altitude aircraft and balloons. Weather balloons and sounding rockets took off after World War II when rocket technologies started gaining technological momentum. The age of space-based remote sensing was initiated only recently with the first Landsat satellite 1972.

Rajan points out that while rocket technologies have stabilized and launching Earth observation missions is relatively common, the fundamental advances in the last 20 years have come in sensors and in the actual frame of a satellite.

Imagers and radiometers, which use other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum beyond visible light, have developed substantially for optical and other means to observe the Earth.

"The use of optics to provide imagery is useful, absent cloud cover," adds RAND's Rajan. "With cloud cover, other radiometric instruments, where development has been leveraged from radar-based techniques, have made substantial inroads, not just for weather, but also for security."

Rajan points out that the top of this list would be Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) which can not only measure wave heights and turbulence especially in coastal zones, but also spot ships and other surface craft.

"RGB techniques themselves have made substantial inroads driven by the confluence of high-end optical measurements for spying from space, as well as, and more importantly from lower end development of miniature cameras riding on the smartphone revolution, he says. "Ocean remote sensing, leading to better weather predictions, similarly has had advances in the optical and radar-based methods. Ocean weather is primarily driven by capturing data on wind, surface currents, sea surface height (SSH) and geodesy - the study of the shape of the Earth including its oceans) in a time varying manner."

Sensors on the ground

Ground sensors have their own unique technologies. Most fielded ground-based weather radars today are mechanically rotating systems with either klystron or magnetron-based systems or elaborate RF and microwave front-end circuitry including heterodyning approaches, explains Mike Jones, a senior manager for ADEF systems platforms for Analog Devices Inc. in Raleigh, N.C. These technologies can include A/D converters, D/A converters, and front-end filters.

Other technologies may be involved "Microwave mixers may be employed for the up-conversion and down-conversion," Jones says. "Parabolic dish antennas are used to emit and detect over-the-air signals. The processing in the back-end involves field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) or application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) which help perform digital signal processing (DSP) on the radar signal returned from the target. This DSP employs processing algorithms which translate the bits from the received data to an image which can be analyzed by us humans, which then enables meteorological analysis to interpret existing storms and forecast where and when they may occur."

Sandy Brown, vice president for digital and mission solutions at the Raytheon Technologies Corp. (RTX) Raytheon segment (formerly the Raytheon Intelligence & Space and Raytheon Missiles & Defense segments) in Aurora, Colo., notes that there are great advancements in commercial space payload construction and data computing.

"In recent years, technological advancements have led to significant advances in Earth observation and weather forecasting," Brown says. "Commercial space payload construction has undergone a revolution because of advanced manufacturing practices and digital engineering. In addition to extending such payloads' capabilities, these innovations have significantly reduced their costs and dramatically reduced their footprint as well. It is these smaller satellites that have contributed to the growth of the SmallSat market. Smaller and more affordable satellite constellations are being deployed to ensure operational resilience and enable quick replacement of lost spacecraft."

Computing capabilities

Brown adds that in addition to these advancements, there are significant improvements in computing capabilities as well.

"Cloud platforms have made it possible to process data more efficiently and faster," brown adds. "Furthermore, applications can now be containerized, allowing them to run seamlessly across various computing environments. artificial intelligence (AI) accessibility has been greatly improved, thanks to enhanced computing power. AI algorithms now play a pivotal role in data analysis and will soon replace certain aspects of traditional physics-based weather models. Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) have become instrumental in accelerating numerical modeling, leading to improved forecast accuracy. As computing capabilities continue to advance, decentralized and quantum computing hold the promise of further enhancing forecast abilities. These advancements will drive the widespread adoption of AI capabilities in Earth observation and weather forecasting."

Also making great contributions to Earth observation is light direction and ranging technology, otherwise known as lidar, points out David Peterson, a meteorologist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory's Marine Meteorology Division in Monterey, Calif. "A discussion about Earth observation must include credit to the advancements in lidar in monitoring and tracking Earth events and observing them," Peterson says.

"The combination of atmospheric profiles from ground and spaceborne lidar with other satellite observations is critical for research into all aerosol plumes such as smoke, dust, pollution, and downstream impacts," Peterson says. "Lidar is the best tool available to understand the vertical profile of wildfire smoke, which has significant implications on where it will be transported and who will be affected. This was especially evident during the recent smoke event that affected the eastern United States, including New York City. Smoke was present in many levels of the atmosphere from near the ground to above the cruising altitudes of jet aircraft. This is a very challenging situation to forecast."

Peterson says the Naval Research Lab employed spaceborne lidar to show that the smoke plumes injected into the stratosphere by wildfire-driven thunderstorms rival or exceed the majority of volcanic plumes at these altitudes over the past decade.

"This means that wildfire smoke can have a lasting impact on the climate system," Peterson says. "The plume from the 2019/20 Australian wildfire events, for instance, persisted in the stratosphere for more than a year."

Advancements in data applications

Advancements in the state of technology for Earth observation and weather forecasting have enabled faster imaging and reporting and sophisticated algorithms that allow for the merging of observational data giving more accurate predictions. Notable technologies that are having an influence include satellite technology; radar systems; numerical weather prediction (NWP); weather observation systems; remote sensing techniques ; big data analytics and machine learning; high-resolution imaging; communications; and data sharing, points out Daryl Madden, vice president geospatial systems at Textron Systems in Sterling, Va.

"Technology in these areas continues to evolve rapidly, and ongoing research and development efforts will continue to enhance Earth observation and weather forecasting capabilities," Madden says. "Here at Textron Systems, we have been working with various types of geospatial data for over 25 years. We have continued to apply the latest in commercial satellite technology into our products to provide actionable insights to our users. The SeeGEO web-enabled platform has the capability to ingest, display, store and exploit geospatial data. RemoteView, our premier imagery exploitation product, allows the imagery analyst to display, measure, compare, and contrast different modalities of remote sensing data to meet their specific needs and missions."

The speed of data processing often is critical, Madden says. "With the increasing threat of natural disasters, fast assessment of the situation is critical to response and rescue efforts. Having access to recent historical imagery to provide change detection assists with more accurate information outputs, such as building and infrastructure damage. In addition, having access to different types of modalities is important for assessment in varying conditions; for example, after a hurricane, the geographical area may still be covered with clouds and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data allows the user to “see through the clouds” to determine flood levels. RemoteView and SeeGEO support various types of imagery such as electro-optical and SAR."

Future weather modeling teams will be hungry for higher-fidelity data that sample Earth's ecosystem at greater resolution than current systems, says Tim Hall is a principal scientist for weather, water, and climate at The Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, Calif.

"Their models will benefit from an expanded, diverse architecture of sensors observing the atmosphere with diverse space-based sensor types, along with expanded networks of non-space terrestrial and ocean sensors.

Dealing with data

Myriad challenges in fueling weather models are associated with the avalanche of data from current and forthcoming space-based Earth-observation systems. Primary limiting factors include moving data around once it is collected by satellites and the compute capacity to assimilate this data into models. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning techniques are expected to relieve some pressure on compute for data assimilation. Also, emerging technology such as on-board satellite edge processing will help reduce downstream data transport and compute needs through smart data thinning and pre-processing of raw measurements.

Technology in the Earth observation and weather forecasting domain is evolving at an incredibly rapid pace, says Jerry Johnston, managing director in Deloitte's Risk and Financial Advisory practice

"A number of converging trends are driving this evolution including the commercialization of space technology and decreasing costs for satellite build and launch; remarkable advances in AI and machine Learning that enable rapid production of insight and intelligence from raw data; and changes in commercial go-to-market strategies to include subscription services and end-to-end capabilities for a broad range of vertical markets" says Johnston, who also is a geospatial technology leader focused on the defense, security, and justice sector. He previously worked as a geospatial information officer at the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

As Johnston sees it, the defense and aerospace industry is already adopting these emerging capabilities to advance their strategies and objectives; the impact will only increase as time goes on.

"As the temporal, spatial, and spectral resolution of commercial Earth observation capabilities continues to improve, the industry has begun to rely on this data to support readiness and mission objectives," adds Johnston. "These include high resolution, hyper local weather forecasting using radio occultation, microwave and other advanced technologies."

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) in Washington has identified climate change as a critical national security issue and seeks to integrate climate considerations into its policies, strategies and partner engagements. "The expansion of modalities and technical capabilities provides the data and insights necessary for advancing resiliency and sustainability of global action," Johnston says. "The ability of the defense and aerospace sector to move away from ordering, managing and processing imagery to directly procuring answers and insights from Earth observation capabilities will only continue to grow over time."

Aircraft and Earth observation

In addition to specific advancements intrinsic to technology and data applications and processing, new aircraft are being built military and government missions.

"Lockheed Martin’s C-130 Hercules and P-3 Orion aircraft have long supported weather reconnaissance and forecasting missions for the U.S. Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Both turboprop airlifters are known for tracking hurricanes but are used throughout the year in gathering and conducting weather research," says Richard Cree, an engineer with Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in Palmdale, Calif. He specializes in airlift mission capabilities for aerial fire-fighting and weather reconnaissance.

Lockheed Martin produced and delivered the WC-130J for the U.S. Air Force to perform reconnaissance missions. "This Super Herc is configured with palletized weather instrumentation for penetration of tropical disturbances and storms, hurricanes and winter storms to obtain data on movement, size and intensity," Cree says. "The WC-130J is the weather data collection platform for the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron based at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss."

NOAA operates two WP-3 Orions for targeted observations by radars and UAS of supercells (TORUS) operations. These aircraft are equipped with scientific instrumentation, radars, and recording systems for in-situ and remote sensing measurements of the atmosphere, the Earth, and its environment. "NOAA P-3s support a wide variety of national and international meteorological, oceanographic and environmental research programs in addition to its widely known use in hurricane research and reconnaissance," Cree adds.

The future of Earth observation

"Observation and weather forecasting technologies have big implications on defense and aerospace strategies right now and in the future," says Raytheon's Brown. "For defense strategy and tactics, it's crucial to use current constellations. SmallSats and cloud usage improve enterprise resilience and provide support for civilian and defense applications in bandwidth-limited environments."

Brown says that onboarding more satellites, the defense and aerospace industries will have access to high-resolution data at a faster refresh rate from instruments like the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS). As a result, high-resolution satellite data will be used more effectively, leading to a better understanding of atmospheric initial conditions and improved numerical weather models. For meteorologists and defense planning, the prospect of a global high-resolution satellite with refresh rates under 15 minutes will significantly enhance forecasting capabilities.

"Over the next three to five years, the military and aerospace electronics industry will see several advancements in technology to support and improve Earth observation and weather forecasting," Brown says. "In the future, AI will handle more tasks and analysis. Spacecraft will have more onboard processing to reduce communication bandwidth and get mission-specific data. Spacecraft construction will become even more cost-effective and efficient with more advancements in digital engineering and advanced manufacturing. The military's capability to provide actionable weather data in remote areas will expand using micro-weather sensors, portable radars, higher-resolution satellite data, and increased observation stations. The industry's open-source approach will foster exponential knowledge sharing, leading to advances in meteorology techniques as developers collaborate, build upon existing ideas, and innovate in novel ways."

Tim Hall of the Aerospace Corporation says that the U.S. depends on a combined civil-military constellation of space-based environmental monitoring (SBEM) systems to support warfighters while also fueling NOAA’s mission to protect U.S. lives and critical infrastructure. In essence, he says, the U.S. SBEM constellation (including capabilities provided by international allies such as the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, or EUMETSAT) represents critical national and economic security infrastructure.

"The Department of Defense and NOAA work together effectively in numerous forums (e.g., Interagency Council for Advancing Meteorological Services, or ICAMS)," says Hall. "To build on the work done in those forums, the U.S. would benefit from a mechanism to conduct formal interagency planning of a combined, civil-military U.S. SBEM constellation. The architecture generated through such a joint process could help boost the resilience of future capabilities critical to all users, in peacetime and during military conflict."

Hall adds that in the next three to five years, new capabilities in Earth observation, including space-based environmental monitoring (SBEM) satellites, will continue to emerge.

"The U.S. government will explore new, streamlined approaches to acquisition, including giving serious consideration to commercial data services offerings," he says. "I expect that increasing collaboration between government and industry will help identify sweet spots in hybrid SBEM architectures that would feature traditional, exquisite, highly calibrated, long-lived instruments alongside augmenting commercial capabilities such as GPS radio occultation (GPS-RO) that will enhance weather forecasting. New concepts continue to emerge in instrument modalities scaled to small satellite platforms, ranging from sounders the measure vertical slices of the atmosphere to precipitation radar. Advanced understanding of the future needs of weather models (i.e., from the mid-2030s) will be critical for government to identify the most promising commercial offerings."

Deloitte's Johnston says the industry will see a continued uptick in the launch of new Earth observation and weather forecasting instruments.

"The planned launch schedules alone over the next several months provide strong evidence of this," says Johnston. "The growing number of Earth observation sensors in Low and Very Low Earth Orbit are providing ever higher resolution and adding to the resiliency and flexibility of the Earth observation ecosystem. As the Earth observation market diversifies and grows -- and enormous volumes of data from a rich constellation of sensors become more available -- the industry will expand its use of these assets. With all of the new entrants into the marketplace, there is no doubt that the community will continue finding new and innovative solutions for their mission problems."

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