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How dozens of tiny satellites may improve daily weather forecasts

February 24, 2021, 2:00 PM UTC

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The race to launch tiny low-cost satellites for photographing the Earth’s surface, mapping, and providing Internet service is getting a new entrant: a company that wants to use its satellites for weather forecasting.

Boston-based startup ClimaCell said on Wednesday that it plans to loft dozens of small satellites equipped with radar to better track storms and precipitation worldwide.

ClimaCell’s satellites, set to launch over the next two years, are each the size of a mini fridge and can be built for 1/20th the cost of traditional weather satellites. In contrast, NASA’s Core Observatory weather satellite, launched in 2014 as part of the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission, cost $1 billion and is the size of a school bus.

ClimaCell said its satellites, because of their numbers, will be able to monitor more of the globe’s atmosphere. Also, because of their low cost, the satellites can be replaced more frequently with better versions.

“Whether it’s the impact of day-to-day precipitation, snow, air quality, or events such as hurricanes and wildfires, we desperately need a dramatically better early warning and action solution at a hyperlocal and operational level ASAP,” ClimaCell CEO Shimon Elkabetz said in a statement.

Even before ClimaCell, the Earth’s orbit has become increasingly crowded with spacecraft launched by startups. For example, Swarm Technologies uses tiny satellites to collect data from connected devices for corporate customers while Elon Musk’s SpaceX is creating a network of thousands of satellites to provide Internet service to people on the ground.

Previously, ClimaCell’s weather forecasts relied on nontraditional data including from mobile phones, connected cars, and traffic cameras. Customers include Uber, Delta Air Lines, and a number of consumer apps.

ClimaCell was formed in 2015 by three Israeli military veterans who had connected in Boston while attending graduate school. Elkabetz was in the Israeli Air Force for 11 years before getting his MBA from Harvard. Rei Goffer, the chief strategy officer, and Itai Zlotnik, the chief customer officer, got their advanced degrees from MIT.

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