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The Role of Small Satellites in NASA and NOAA Earth Observation Programs
Until now, most missions were designed to push the envelope in terms of technical ability and sensor performance. There was an implicit preference for a high-quality measurement once per day versus lower quality measurements several times per day. As the research community moves toward systematic observations of the Earth system, spatial and temporal sampling become more important factors. This is prompting a rethinking of the performance requirements of an individual measurement and the coverage requirements in time and space. Indeed, new satellite and sensor technologies are fostering a fundamental shift in Earth remote sensing measurement and satellite options. In particular, satellite constellations and clusters could provide significantly better coverage and open up new approaches for calibration and data continuity. The research community needs to evaluate the time and space scales of critical processes and match them with the appropriate sampling strategy. Such new satellite architectures no longer constrain the community to a single sampling approach, such as a Sun-synchronous orbit with a fixed equatorial crossing time.
Although this chapter's discussion takes essentially a research perspective, the time sampling strategy of operational missions such as NPOESS could also be analyzed rigorously. If the EDRs were prioritized, a strategy different from the present small constellation of three medium-sized platforms might result. The committee recommends that both the research and operational communities perform a complete analysis of sampling strategies in the context of potential new mission architectures. The result of this analysis might be a different mix of sampling strategies, including small one-of-a-kind missions, constellations of small satellites, and a few mid-size multisensor platforms. As discussed in subsequent chapters of this report, the maturation of remote sensing science and the development of new sensor, platform, and launcher technologies allow for a more systematic approach to both research and operational Earth remote sensing. Just as personal computers and networks have revolutionized the way computational systems are organized, new technologies in remote sensing can shift the way we design observing systems.
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