Milton Friedman’s “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there’d be a shortage of sand” alludes to the fact that how it would become more efficient and agile if government-run projects were fully operated by privately-run teams. This liberal attitude has become a motivation for me to ask Thomas Yunck, the founder of GeoOptics, one of the pioneer companies in the Earth Observation business (founded in 2006 based in Pasadena, California), for a friendly chat on their achievements and prospects.
As one of the first and few privately-run businesses in the modern industry of earth observation (EO), how do you describe the comparative advantage of your services?
The fast-growing number of missions and applications developed in EO research and industry calls for more rapid innovations to be done at lower costs. Commercial solution is exactly what we provide at GeoOptics; undertaking ground-breaking missions, such as GNSS Radio Occultation (GNSS-RO), at a fraction of the costs that government-based organizations have been spending. As a long-time technical manager at NASA, I’ve been keeping the track of relentless costs of many NASA and NOAA missions, e.g., GRACE, and it’s obvious that they cannot keep up with those soaring costs. The commercial solution can provide an opportunity to dwindle those expenses to a fifth or a tenth and make projects much more efficient in terms of timing and also output distribution. This strategy may then help government labs to become more competitive and, by implications, more efficient and agile. This public-private model we developed in our business encourages governments to outsource their missions to privately-run enterprises.
Who are your partners? Are you still in collaboration with JPL?
JPL and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems are the main partners we collaborate with. I was at NASA for almost 30 years, where we developed the GNSS-RO technique which uses GNSS signals passing through the atmosphere and ionosphere to sense their properties in fine detail. We can now benefit from the professional relationships established during that time to put GNSS-RO into commercial practice. In partnership with JPL and Tyvak, we’ve lunched our own constellation, CICERO, for atmospheric radio occultation. CICERO delivers data for operational weather forecasting, climate research, and space weather monitoring. The products include high-accuracy profiles of atmospheric density, pressure, temperature, and moisture as well as 3D maps of the electron distribution in the ionosphere.
Such a coincidence! You named your constellation CICERO after a Roman statesman and philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was one of the first icons in history theorizing free market. How did you come with the word CICERO?
Yes, that’s correct. However, I learnt about the great Roman statesman/philosopher after we named our constellation as it stands for “Community Initiative for Continuing Earth Radio Occultation”. The constellation, especially our next-generation satellites, offer an improved version of GNSS-RO with a much higher data capacity.
Let’s get back to the mission. Among the products you listed for CICERO, most of them are related to the Earth’s atmosphere, which makes a perfect sense for a GNSS-RO mission. However, ocean and ice property have been also mentioned among the prospects of this mission. I wonder how GNSS-RO is capable of ocean and ice remote sensing.
Ocean and ice remote sensing are not going to be done through GNSS-RO, but they’re among our upcoming plan which is be on GNSS-Reflectometry (GNSS-R). CICERO will start receiving reflected GNSS signals from the ocean soon to monitor the ice volume, ice age (i.e., FYI, MYI, etc.), and ice/water recognition as well as ocean surface winds and soil moisture. The advantages of CICERO, compared to other LEO micro-satellite constellations, such as CYGNSS, will be a higher radar accuracy, wider coverage area including sub-polar regions, shorter revisit time around few hours, and near real-time data distribution. We are currently expanding technical team by hiring engineers and scientists.
What challenges you face while running your enterprise?
The main challenge is familiarizing commercial providers and agencies with this win-win opportunity, which allows both sides to be more efficient. Government agencies, such as NASA, NOAA, and the Air Force are our main clients; they pay the major part of the system cost. So, They appreciate the value of this sort of collaboration and plan to expand such arrangements for future data procurements. We need to tap our professional connections to highlight the importance of commercial solutions in making EO more cost- and time-efficient.
Your closing statement would be welcome.
We are a business, and we must cover our costs, but I have been a scientist as well; I know how scientific affairs and knowledge are decisive in preserving our environment. GeoOptics was founded by a team of scientists to serve the world’s citizens. That’s why we’ve pledged ourselves to provide all CICERO data free of charge to researchers. Although we are still in the middle of transition, we have a strong business model as well as a hard-working team of scientists dedicating themselves to meeting our commitment to society. So, If you are a researcher interested in using our data, please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.
Tom Yunck is Founder and Chief Technical Officer of GeoOptics, Inc., a startup dedicated to advancing Earth remote sensing with constellations of small satellites. For 25 years he oversaw the development of flight instruments and information systems for Earth science at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. At JPL, Tom developed the first proposals for the GRACE gravity mission and for GPS radio occultation sounding of the atmosphere, which are brought together, and advanced, in GeoOptics’ Earth Gravitational Observatory – Crosslink Occultation (EGO-XO) project, which has received several development grants from NASA. Tom has been PI on many NASA projects, including the General Earth Science Investigation Suite (GENESIS), the Active Tropospheric Ozone and Moisture Sounder (ATOMS), and the Climate Virtual Observatory (CVO). He was chief inventor of the “state space” precise real time GPS positioning technique used in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Wide Area Augmentation System. In 2004, Dr. Yunck was inducted into the Space Foundation’s Space Technology Hall of Fame.