A Strange Kind of Data Tracks the Weather—and Pirate Ships

WIRED | 1/11/2019 | Sarah Scoles
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A group of apes is called a shrewdness; a group of ferrets is called a business; a group of small satellites is called a constellation. And Spire is the name of one shrewd business with a constellation of small satellites. More than 60 of its sats are up in orbit, collecting information about the weather, as well as the movements of ships and air traffic.

Inside Spire’s Boulder office, a conference-room computer beams those satellites’ knowledge from space to a screen.

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These sats aren't like the planet-observers you may be used to. In the world of remote sensing—the use of satellites to glean information about Earth—imagery has long ruled. But Spire’s smallsats don’t take pretty pictures: They use broadcasts from ships, aircraft, and other satellites to infer earthly conditions as disparate as tomorrow’s forecast and the movements of pirate vessels. The use of such small satellites to see Earth in new, non-visual ways is set to grow in importance (and value) in the next decade—improving forecasts, making the shipping industry more efficient, and gathering invisible electromagnetic intelligence. Pictures will probably always be worth more, but these satellites are demonstrating there’s more to Earth than meets the eye. Now, Earth’s inhabitants—forecasters, miners, even experimental aviators—are trying to figure out what all this data can do for them.

Getting present weather conditions and future predictions right is tricky. Small changes—or small errors or uncertainties—can lead to wildly different outcomes. “The butterfly effect is real,” says Nick Allain, Spire’s head of “brand.” Even terrain makes a difference. “If you removed one of the Flatirons,” he says, referring to the sloping slabs of rock that poke out over Boulder, “your weather would change.”

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Spire’s smallsats aim to gather more data points from across the planet to create global forecasts, not just ones focused on the US. But it’s...
(Excerpt) Read more at: WIRED
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