By Brad Smith | Sep 06, 2016
Weather Forecasting Technology
Everyone likes to talk about the weather, whether it is the snowstorm that layers powder on ski slopes or highways, farmers praying for rain on their crops, or the impact of global warming.
There's another weather story many people are not aware of but still can have wide-ranging effects, some showy and others capable of adversely impacting much of the world's population. This is space weather, the kind that occurs in the outer reaches of the planet's atmosphere, in the ionosphere and beyond.
Minor storms in this part of the atmosphere enhance the spectacular Northern Lights. But major storms can cause power blackouts on Earth, knock out satellite communications and interrupt all manner of radio signals, including your cell reception. One big storm in 2006 disrupted GPS signals on commercial airliners and another in 1989 knocked out electricity in the entire Canadian province of Quebec.
Predicting and monitoring those storms has become more important globally. And there's a growing industry looking at this weather, including members of the American Commercial Space Weather Association. One of the leaders is Atmospheric & Space Technology Research Associates (ASTRA), headquartered in Boulder, which is also the home of the Space Weather Prediction Center operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
ASTRA, relatively unknown even in its hometown, was honored this year as one of 50 Colorado Companies to Watch. The awards were launched in 2009 by the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade to recognize second-stage companies for their success in innovation, their valuable products and services, community involvement and quality jobs.
The Boulder City Council issued a proclamation honoring ASTRA and six other Boulder companies who received the Companies to Watch award. Crowley says the city council and staff held a reception for the companies, which was an opportunity to get the word out about his company. A bonus was that the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration, which aids companies like his, was at the reception.
The message Crowley is spreading is that ASTRA is a leader in a "New Space" small satellite revolution, specializing in miniaturized sensors, and also designing new uses and ways to apply existing sensors for the oil and gas and agriculture industries. ASTRA's scientific and engineering expertise also is used for high-frequency radio and radar, GPS systems and satellite remote sensing.
"We're starting to get recognition and we're using it in our marketing and in getting people's attention," Crowley says. "It quickly lends credibility to the conversation and people want to know more when they hear it. It helps our marketing story and could bring more investment potentially. That could be part of the strategic partnering if people are interested in that."
ASTRA has five divisions: One models and simulates the space environment where the International Space Station is located; another uses data simulation to forecast space weather; a third designed a GPS Space Weather Monitor; another offers simulation and engineering services to help the oil and gas industry, plus radar that measures waves in the ionosphere; and the last focuses on technology used in very small satellites called CubeSats.
CubeSats are about the size of a box of facial tissue. Crowley was the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation-funded Cubesat that launched in 2011. ASTRA is building several now for its customers, including the Air Force and NASA. "That's a huge accomplishment and a big feather in our cap," he says, describing CubeSats as nothing less than a revolution in space exploration.
The CubeSats are relatively easy to launch into space, very efficient and cost 1 percent what larger satellites cost, Crowley says. Although many startup companies have gotten into the field, ASTRA is one of the few that has built CubeSats, he says. His company designs the form factor of the satellite, the power it uses, some of the electronics, and some of the instruments. Partners build the exterior, although ASTRA could do that.
Among ASTRA's newest endeavors is a collaboration with the University of Colorado using lasers to measure the depth of water on Earth more accurately than anything before. Crowley says the technology, named "Inphamis," can inexpensively and accurately map the bottom of a lake, showing small objects in detail. ASTRA is testing the technology with the U.S. Geological Survey and also is looking for investors. It could be used to accurately measure how much water is in a farm pond or reservoir, or by first responders to find a car or other objects underwater.
Crowley appeared on actor William Shatner's Moving America Forward TV show in 2012, which recognizes innovative companies. He talked about how ASTRA's technology monitors space weather and also mentioned an early demonstration project using a smartphone application to deliver space weather information to the public.
Challenges: "Always for a small business the challenge is finding the next customer," says Crowley. "That's one, two, and three on our list. We have mostly repeat customers because ASTRA has a reputation of building things that work. Our customers are the best source [of new customers]. We do lots of in-person presentations, marketing our capabilities, and responding to RFPs. Our story is that this is an exciting small business doing cool things with great effect and that if more people knew about the work we are doing they would want to work with us. We are looking to grow and looking for strategic partnerships. We are always trying to get out the message of what we do and get people involved. Customers like that story. It's an exciting environment."
Opportunities: Dynamic growth, says Crowley. "We're going to grow [revenues] again this year and in the foreseeable future. We expect to see double [revenues] next year. We are currently about $3 to $4 million."
Needs: "Growth is the focus now, so we are looking for partners and new customers," says Crowley.