Virtual constellations for global terrestrial monitoring

  • Wulder M
  • Hilker T
  • White J
 et al. 
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Free and open access to satellite imagery and value-added data products have revolutionized the role of remote sensing in Earth system science. Nonetheless, rapid changes in the global environment pose challenges to the science community that are increasingly difficult to address using data from single satellite sensors or platforms due to the underlying limitations of data availability and tradeoffs that govern the design and implementation of currently existing sensors. Virtual constellations of planned and existing satellite sensors may help to overcome this limitation by combining existing observations to mitigate limitations of any one particular sensor. While multi-sensor applications are not new, the integration and harmonization of multi-sensor data is still challenging, requiring tremendous efforts of science and operational user communities. Defined by the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) as a "set of space and ground segment capabilities that operate in a coordinated manner to meet a combined and common set of Earth Observation requirements", virtual constellations can principally be used to combine sensors with similar spatial, spectral, temporal, and radiometric characteristics. We extend this definition to also include sensors that are principally incompatible, because they are fundamentally different (for instance active versus passive remote sensing systems), but their combination is necessary and beneficial to achieve a specific monitoring goal. In this case, constellations are more likely to build upon the complementarity of resultant information products from these incompatible sensors rather than the raw physical measurements. In this communication, we explore the potential and possible limitations to be overcome regarding virtual constellations for terrestrial science applications, discuss potentials and limitations of various candidate sensors, and provide context on integration of sensors. Thematically, we focus on land-cover and land-use change (LCLUC), with emphasis given to medium spatial resolution (i.e., pixels sided 10 to 100. m) sensors, specifically as a complement to those onboard the Landsat series of satellites. We conclude that virtual constellations have the potential to notably improve observation capacity and thereby Earth science and monitoring programs in general. Various national and international parties have made notable and valuable progress related to virtual constellations. There is, however, inertia inherent to Earth observation programs, largely related to their complexity, as well as national interests, observation aims, and high system costs. Herein we define and describe virtual constellations, offer the science and applications information needs to offer context, provide the scientific support for a range of virtual constellation levels based upon applications readiness, capped by a discussion of issues and opportunities toward facilitating implementation of virtual constellations (in their various forms).

Author-supplied keywords

  • Constellation
  • Land cover
  • Land use
  • Landsat
  • Monitoring
  • Satellite
  • Science
  • Sentinel-2

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  • Michael A. Wulder

  • Thomas Hilker

  • Joanne C. White

  • Nicholas C. Coops

  • Jeffrey G. Masek

  • Dirk Pflugmacher

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