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Report on the Panel Discussion

Smaller Satellites and their Use in Operational Environmental Monitoring Systems

International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) Symposium on Small Satellites for Earth Observation,
Berlin, Germany, November 6, 1996

This panel discussion was planned and hosted by the UK Meteorological Office and NOAA during a week-long International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) Symposium on Small Satellites for Earth Observation. The panel discussion was moderated by Dr. Peter Curtis, Space Policy Advisor, UKMO and Mr. W. John Hussey, Director, Office of Systems Development, NOAA/NESDIS.

Panel members were:

The panel discussion was well-attended by more than 120 participants from Europe, Asia, the Americas, and elsewhere. Numerous questions and excellent comments were received from the audience, which included representatives of government and intergovernmental organizations, private industry, and academia.

The panel discussion began with a series of jointly-developed viewgraphs which had been developed by the UKMO and NOAA and circulated to panel members. They dealt with the following subjects:

The fundamental question asked of the panel and the audience was "can the use of small satellites add value to the users of operational meteorological and environmental data?"

The conclusions that I drew from the meeting and as Chairman of the panel session were:

  1. The consensus of the panel and audience was that operational agencies should be wary of adapting technology for technology's sake. Just a decade ago, a popular idea was to increase the size and complexity of platforms. NASA even advocated serviceable platforms for long-term measurements. We now know that such a system architecture is far too expensive even for the research community. In each case, the size and complexity of a satellite and its instruments must be measured against overall mission requirements.

  2. During the conference and panel session it became clear that the real focus of small sat technology should not be merely on the satellites, but also on the design and demonstration of subsystems and instruments (especially the latter) for remote sensing. The size and complexity of the satellite bus is determined primarily by the instruments and data handling subsystems.

  3. Operational agencies are being forced to consider new designs and approaches, because of the following: decreased funding from their governments, a growing and diversifying user community, rapidly rising medium-class launch vehicle costs, and the increasing role of the commercial sector (which is pushing small sat initiatives). Within the next 15-20 years, operational agencies will seek to utilize proven small satellite technologies to augment their planned programs.

  4. The operational requirements (rigorous quality control, long-term data continuity, and reliability of environmental measurements) of NOAA and EUMETSAT result in a conservative approach to the development of new capabilities and technologies. It would not necessarily be cost-effective for small satellites to replace or augment existing operational satellite systems, such as the METOP, NOAA, and GOES series. Existing series benefit from the economies of scale inherent in the use of multiple instruments on a single platform. To date, most studies have shown that splitting these planned payloads on to separate launch vehicles would increase mission expense and complexity.

  5. Before the operational agencies begin to utilize the improvements in technologies that accrue from the small sat initiatives, the research community must first demonstrate that these technologies can accomplish some of the following for operational programs: decrease launch costs; allow more instrument to fly on the same satellite bus; adequately provide single-instrument backup for the failure of a critical on-orbit instrument (such as an operational imager or sounder); and, offer new measurements of operational value (such as radio occultation sounding enabling a GPS "sounder"), while adequately processing and transmitting large volumes of environmental data

  6. The operational agencies should seek to have the research agencies (such as NASA, ESA, and NASDA) effectively demonstrate small sat technologies. The technical solutions must at least match the current measurement quality and offer the reliability necessary to provide long-term data continuity. They must also be cost-effective and their pre-operational demonstration should be relatively transparent to the operational user community.

  7. Follow-on systems (such as the U.S. NPOESS Program and European METOP-3) should investigate new small satellite technologies which could augment their operation through additional measurements or added redundancy. Nevertheless, the phasing in of new instrument, subsystem, and platform technologies and platforms would be a tremendous programmatic and financial challenge.

  8. Small satellites may also be valuable in providing single, prototype operational missions for measurements such as ocean color, ocean surface winds, ocean height, radio occultation sounding, and ozone. In this manner, they could demonstrate incremental enhancements to operational observing systems, broadening them from meteorology to include fields such as oceanography, atmospheric chemistry, and even climatology. These applications would not replace the main operational missions. Further study in this area is recommended.

  9. Small satellites may provide a vehicle for other countries (i.e., Brazil, China, Argentina) to play a role in an expanded operational global observing system. Due to the flat or declining budgets of the developed world's space agencies, this is a particularly important factor.

  10. Small satellites may also allow private companies to demonstrate new Earth observation capabilities of interest to governments, which in turn could apply these technologies to operational programs, possibly through an "anchor tenant" arrangement. This could result in an increase in the number of potential contractors for operational space systems. The need for better information on the requirements of the operational meteorological community and the relative value of measurements to the community was emphasized as crucial to allowing industry to make targeted proposals and investments.

Copyright © Peter Curtis
The views are entirely those of the author and do not represent any other organisations.
Most recent revision: 18th December, 1996