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Effect of satellite formations and imaging modes on global albedo estimation

Nag, S., C. Gatebe, D. W. Miller, and O. L. de Weck (2016), Effect of satellite formations and imaging modes on global albedo estimation, Acta Astronautica, 126, 77-97, doi:10.1016/j.actaastro.2016.04.004.

We confirm the applicability of using small satellite formation flight for multi-angular earth observation to retrieve global, narrow band, narrow field-of-view albedo. The value of formation flight is assessed using a coupled systems engineering and science evaluation model, driven by Model Based Systems Engineering and Observing System Simulation Experiments. Albedo errors are calculated against bi-directional reflectance data obtained from NASA airborne campaigns made by the Cloud Absorption Radiometer for the seven major surface types, binned using MODIS’ land cover map – water, forest, cropland, grassland, snow, desert and cities. A full tradespace of architectures with three to eight satellites, maintainable orbits and imaging modes (collective payload pointing strategies) are assessed. For an arbitrary 4-sat formation, changing the reference, nadir-pointing satellite dynamically reduces the average albedo error to 0.003, from 0.006 found in the static reference case. Tracking pre-selected waypoints with all the satellites reduces the average error further to 0.001, allows better polar imaging and continued operations even with a broken formation. An albedo error of 0.001 translates to 1.36 W/m2 or 0.4% in Earth’s outgoing radiation error. Estimation errors are found to be independent of the satellites’ altitude and inclination, if the nadir-looking is changed dynamically. The formation satellites are restricted to differ in only right ascension of planes and mean anomalies within slotted bounds. Three satellites in some specific formations show average albedo errors of less than 2% with respect to airborne, ground data and seven satellites in any slotted formation outperform the monolithic error of 3.6%. In fact, the maximum possible albedo error, purely based on angular sampling, of 12% for monoliths is outperformed by a five-satellite formation in any slotted arrangement and an eight satellite formation can bring that error down four fold to 3%. More than 70% ground spot overlap between the satellites is possible with 0.5° of pointing accuracy, 2 Km of GPS accuracy and commands uplinked once a day. The formations can be maintained at less than 1 m/s of monthly ΔV per satellite.

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Research Program: 
Energy & Water Cycle Program (EWCP)
Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry Program (OBB)
Radiation Science Program (RSP)