LOGAN -- Utah State University's Advance Weather Systems laboratory has landed a contract worth more than $100 million to build a sounding sensor, to sense and measure water vapors from high Earth orbit, and to provide information that will help predict severe weather events with more precision and accuracy than any system has before.
The sounding sensor is nicknamed STORM, and the contract is with GeoMetWatch, a USTAR-supported company based in North Logan. GeoMetWatch hopes to sell weather information it gathers to governments around the world, and to interested industries.
"The most basic way to think of the sounder is it looks down through the atmosphere from space, and almost literally takes a CAT scan of the atmosphere," said Forrest N. Fackrell, the chief development officer for GeoMetWatch. Fackrell left a job at USU a year ago to join the new company.
"The STORM sensor will look through the atmosphere in roughly 1,800 different layers, and with the data we get, we can tell exactly what the temperature is, the direction and velocity of the wind, and all movement of water vapor. Water vapor is basically the fuel for all severe weather, not just in clouds, but in clear air. We can see storms form in clear air."
Fackrell said that most weather satellites orbit between 200 and 600 miles above the Earth's surface. STORM will be launched into geosynchronous orbit with the Earth, about 22,000 miles above the surface.
"With low Earth orbit, a satellite might pass over Ogden two times every 24 hours," Fackrell said. "It's as if you closed your eyes for 24 hours, and open them only twice, you wouldn't get a clear picture of the weather.
"But our weather instrument will be virtually parked over a given location on Earth, over the United States, over Europe, or over the Pacific Ocean. Instead of seeing the weather situation two times in a 24-hour period, you will see it constantly."
The system is based on technology developed by the government, in part through programs that later lost funding, Fackrell said. GeoMetWatch's contract with the government states the government will not compete with GeoMetWatch's efforts, although other commercial companies can contract to compete. But for now, GeoMetWatch is the only such company, Fackrell said.
Fackrell said currently, low-orbiting weather satellites provide information on 16 channels, versus the 1,800 channels STORM will provide. When the STORM sensor is launched into orbit, which is expected to happen in 2016, Fackrell said, it will provide information that could save countless lives.
"One of the things that makes this project so exciting is the potential humanitarian benefits," Fackrell said. "Currently, entire villages are wiped out by floods, and communities are torn apart by severe weather events they didn't know would happen. Not too long ago, lower Manhattan shut down for an approaching hurricane that never came."
People get so used to severe weather warnings being wrong that they become complacent, and shelter in place when evacuation would be safer, Fackrell said. The STORM project will be able to predict the area where evacuation is most advisable, cutting a 200-square-mile area in half, saving government evacuation funds and saving the public from inconvenience, he said.
Fackrell said Utah State University is the ideal place to produce the first STORM sensor because of the school's experience in creating satellites, involvement with the space program and expertise in astrophysics.
Forty to 50 lab scientists will be tasked with building the first STORM sensor, which Fackrell said will be about the size of a refrigerator on its side, and filled with hundreds of precision parts. Fackrell said he doesn't want to give the exact amount of money to be paid to USU, because of the competitive nature of business.
Fackrell said each STORM sensor should be able to observe about 60 degrees of the earth, so to study weather on the entire planet would take six STORM sensors.
Fackrell anticipates his company ultimately will have six devices in high orbit, and others ready to serve as replacements when the need arises.
Scott M. Jensen is director of USU's Advance Weather Systems laboratory.
"The STORM sensor is a sophisticated scientific instrument that our team is uniquely suited to build," Jensen said in a statement. "We are delighted at the opportunity to build this sensor and deliver it to GeoMetWatch."