Paper: Remote Sensing: A Cubesat Study (CU 2023)


Recent advances in miniaturized satellite technology have brought space within reach for small research groups, opening up new possibilities for targeted Earth observation missions. CubeSats, low-cost modular nanosatellites, can now provide capabilities that were once only feasible on large, expensive traditional satellites. This has exciting implications for remote sensing and tackling real-world problems through space-based observation.

Four case studies highlighted in the attached report demonstrate the potential of CubeSats to fill critical gaps in Earth monitoring in areas like disaster response, wildlife conservation, and land management. Their small size enables frequently revisiting specific areas of interest, overcoming limitations in coverage from conventional satellites.

Deploying a constellation of CubeSats could significantly improve bushfire detection, providing real-time alerts to new ignitions. By developing an infrared sensor optimized for early fire detection and combining it with rapid data processing and dissemination, CubeSats could detect fires within minutes rather than the hours required for current satellites. Even a single fire-spotting CubeSat with a high revisit rate over at-risk regions would mark a major improvement for early warning capabilities.

For wildlife conservation, CubeSats present a cost-effective option for tracking animal movements and habitat use. Building on proven technologies like GPS and radio-based tags, they could help shed light on migration patterns, poaching and emerging disease outbreaks. Their global coverage and frequent revisits make them well-suited for monitoring highly mobile species across remote areas. A collaborative constellation shared between conservation groups could one day provide near real-time monitoring of endangered wildlife populations.

Land deformation monitoring is another key application for CubeSats. Using radar sensors, small satellites could map ground displacement from earthquakes, volcanoes or landslides over areas of interest. Focused constellations would enable regular high-resolution imaging at lower cost than a dedicated large spacecraft. This micro-satellite approach could democratize access to critical deformation monitoring capabilities.

Finally, CubeSats show promise for improving hurricane forecasting through deploying compact versions of key atmospheric sensors. By gathering high temporal resolution data on variables like temperature, humidity and cloud structure within tropical storm systems, CubeSat observations could help validate hurricane model predictions. This could sharpen forecast accuracy and enhance early warning for coastal communities.

These examples demonstrate the advantages CubeSats offer in terms of flexibility, cost effectiveness and rapid deployment. While not a full replacement for traditional satellites, they open up new possibilities for targeted, gap-filling observation missions. CubeSats lower barriers to entry for research groups, students and organizations interested in practical space applications.

Building, launching and operating a remote sensing CubeSat still requires extensive technical expertise. However, the modular CubeSat design and availability of commercial off-the-shelf components help streamline development. Some regulatory and coordination challenges exist, but overall CubeSats promise to democratize Earth observation and involve more groups in tackling real-world problems from space.

Smaller, cheaper satellites are unlocking new innovation in remote sensing. CubeSats offer research teams the chance to test novel instruments, demonstrate new capabilities and provide public benefit. They will complement data from larger platforms, filling observational gaps at higher resolution. The rise of CubeSats could transform how we monitor issues like fires, wildlife, disasters and climate change. Their potential to expand access and applications for space technology is why CubeSats are an exciting frontier in Earth observation.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email