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The Role of Small Satellites in NASA and NOAA Earth Observation Programs
Different design approaches yield a 4:1 range in aperture size (or equivalently in focal ratio).
For example, MODIS, with its 36 spectral channels ranging from 0.405 µm to 14.385 µm, makes a variety of measurements that serve a broad array of applications including vegetation/biomass estimation, cloud cover, atmospheric sounding, and ocean color. These measurements could be acquired by two, three, or perhaps four separate, smaller sensors tailored for a specific application. Each of these smaller instruments could even fly on its own dedicated small satellite (or even smaller microsatellite), though the economic advantage of designing and building a proliferation of smaller sensors is not clear. Small satellite technology is at least an enabler that makes it feasible to address these trade-offs in search of a robust and economical solution to mission-level measurement needs.
Sensor design should flow from measurement requirements and is best performed as an iterative process between designers and the science community within the constraints set by fundamental physics, the state of the technology, and cost.
The size of payload sensors affects the design of the entire space segment and establishes the scale of the spacecraft and launch vehicle. Through this relationship, the payload sensors exert substantial leverage over all space segment element costs.
It is often difficult to determine the actual costs of developing new sensors. Many development programs build on prior technology or sensor development efforts but do not account for these costs. Nevertheless, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration anticipates lower costs for the NPOESS sensors compared with their heritage sensors on EOS. Lower costs might be expected due to the EOS development heritage, further advances in sensor technology, and more efficient procurements (e.g., multiple buys).
As currently designed, many—but not all—of the sensors planned for EOS and NPOESS satellites could be physically accommodated on small satellites in the 100 to 500 kg class. Chapter 6 provides a detailed analysis of the factors to be considered in determining whether it is cost-effective to distribute planned sensors on a larger number of satellite platforms. Larger, multipurpose sensors can be subjected to the classical analysis of the trade-offs in partitioning required measurements among several smaller sensors that could then be accommodated on several small satellites, although the economic advantage of doing so is not apparent.5
Similar architectural trade-offs are discussed in Chapter 6 at the spacecraft level.