Why space weather data could transform military operations
Soldier Modernisation explores how advances in Earth Observation, specifically atmosphere monitoring with nanosatellite technology, adds a new dimension to mission-critical operations with Nick Bloomfield, a UK combat veteran and now a business development executive at Spire Global
LEMUR satellite in orbit (visualisation)
Weather can have a dramatic impact on military operations, so accurate forecasting is crucial. Our
ability to predict the weather, based on what is happening in the Earth’s atmosphere, paves the way
for better strategic and tactical decisions on the ground, in the air and at sea. It is well-known,
for instance, that D-Day was postponed for 24 hours due to adverse weather conditions, when the allies
were able to take advantage of a temporary calm period to launch their attack. Any more time spent
waiting could have compromised the secrecy of the operation and changed the course of history.
Satellites are one of the main assets used for weather monitoring because they offer comprehensive coverage of the most hard-to-reach places. When paired with powerful data processing capabilities, military strategists can make effective use of vast amounts of weather information, even out in the field. Plans can therefore be built around and mitigated against possible adverse weather conditions, taking into account factors such as the impact of cloud cover on visibility and what equipment is needed for soldiers to operate effectively.
The satellite technology used for weather monitoring has advanced in recent years. We are now able to
monitor hundreds of weather variables, covering multiple layers of atmosphere. Not only can we monitor
and predict weather events like wind, rain, and storms happening just above the Earth’s surface, we
are also able to understand what happens in the upper part of the atmosphere and in space –
collectively this is known as “space weather”.
Space weather events – including solar flares, radiation storms, and ionospheric storms – can all be
monitored to determine what impact they will have on the performance of the space-borne and
ground-based systems that soldiers utilise in the field, such as GNSS and communications equipment.
Advances made in the monitoring, modelling and forecasting of space weather events can therefore
support more accurate and proactive decision-making, increasing the safety and likelihood of success
One company at the forefront of space weather monitoring is the data and analytics provider Spire Global. Using a constellation of more than 110 Low Earth Multi-Use Receiver (LEMUR) nanosatellites, it acquires valuable datasets and powerful insights about Earth from space – the ultimate vantage point. It then enriches the data with predictive technology, enabling decisions to be made with confidence, accuracy, and speed. Spire is working with governments and the military to realise the potential of this data. We have asked Nick Bloomfield to explain more.
Spire Earth Intelligence data
What is Spire doing in the field of Earth Observation, particularly weather and space weather
With our Earth Intelligence data from the planet’s surface and atmosphere, as well as space weather
data, you can build a detailed picture of what is happening on and around our planet. Data is
collected via our low earth orbit constellation of nanosatellites using radio frequency (RF) sensors.
This is then processed into actionable information and intelligence.
The use of small, low-power, passive sensors has allowed us to develop a large constellation of small but capable satellites. As a result, we are able to sense the atmosphere with global coverage and high quality weather data collection. We collect a great variety of data parameters that span domains from the Earth’s surface up to near-Earth space. These include wind strength and direction, wave height, soil moisture, sea ice, temperature, pressure and total electron content (TEC).
What type of data does Spire collect and how is it used for space weather monitoring?
Our primary Earth Intelligence sensor is a GNSS receiver onboard the Spire satellites. This tracks multiple dual-frequency GNSS satellite signals in a “limb sounding” or “radio occultation (RO)” geometry. This means that the radio signals penetrate deeply into the atmosphere allowing the receiver to make estimates of its properties. In particular, we routinely collect and process large volumes of TEC data. This is a measure of the overall density of the ionosphere and is sensitive to space weather events. The GNSS receiver can also detect the small ionospheric irregularities that cause RF scintillation (that is rapid changes in a signal’s amplitude and phase).
The ionospheric TEC is the largest error source for single frequency GNSS systems. While dual frequency GNSS receivers can remove this error, the TEC can still impact convergence times for precise navigation applications. GNSS systems can also suffer poor performance or loss of service due to ionospheric scintillation and this cannot be mitigated through the use of dual frequencies.
We have also developed the Spire TEC Environment Assimilation Model (STEAM), which enhances our ionospheric data with other datasets and a background model. STEAM produces accurate real-time ionospheric products and makes them available via a well-defined API that can be integrated into customers’ own systems. The use of LEO observations improves the spatial coverage of the ionosphere over that which can be achieved from using only ground data. This is especially important across oceans and other difficult to access areas.
How does your current expertise help you to pioneer new space weather monitoring techniques?
We are a specialist in nanosatellite technology and RF payloads, and we design, manufacture and operate a growing constellation of multi-payload nanosatellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). We use remote RF sensing (namely GNSS-RO and GNSS Reflectometry), track AIS or ADS-B signals from ships and aircrafts and deploy machine learning to collect and process Earth Intelligence data with speed and accuracy.
Data and analytics are at the heart of what we do and the infrastructure we have built allows us to collect, process and analyse large amounts of different types of data. Our satellite constellation of over 110 spacecraft and our ground system is large and resilient, and we have developed SDR (software defined radio) payloads for multiple data types. The technology is continually updated and improved, which opens up a range of new industry and defence applications.
Could you explain what ‘space weather as a service’ is?
Just as ‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS) allows organisations to access analytics without building and maintaining their own programmes, ‘space weather as a service’ offers a route to space weather data and models, without having to make the investment in proprietary hardware (both in space and on the ground) and software.
Currently available, operational space weather monitoring tools serve well as a ‘traffic light’ style warning of the environment but are not precise enough to understand the impact of space weather on specific systems. Our infrastructure means we are able to provide comprehensive coverage and also deliver the data in a clear and actionable format at each stage of a military operation, supporting the commander's decision making.
Instead of simply collecting data, space weather as a service provides operational space weather data models, such as global ionospheric models, and enables real-time (or near real-time) mapping of space weather events, so we can forecast their impact on different geographic regions and possible impact on operations and C4ISR systems. These new monitoring methods help to fill the information gaps with near real-time global space data models – heralding a new era of enhanced modelling and proactive decisions.
What does the future hold?
Since Spire was founded in 2012, we’ve built up more than 300 years of flight heritage, yet our ethos remains the same: provide data that has an impact and delivers value to customers and end users.
Our 3U and 6U nanosatellites are designed to collect global space-based data on a huge scale, so we can expand our capabilities without incurring the high cost and time of launching larger individual satellites. The experience and expertise we gain in one sector can be used to tackle challenges in another. Increasingly granular data also enables faster responses, enhances early warning systems and enriches our knowledge and understanding of complex processes happening on our planet
With military forces relying on numerous location-based services that depend on accurate GNSS positions, emerging trends of Internet of Military Things’ (IoMT), and data-driven operations , space weather forecasting and predictive modelling will gain in importance for the success of future military operations. Developing a plan in anticipation of space weather events, rather than reacting to them, can give military personnel a clear advantage and we are well-positioned to unlock this potential.