CubeSats to measure light pollution

I had the fortune of being able to offer some examples of environmental applications in a paper by Dee Pack and Brian Hardy from Aerospace Corporation for the Small Satellite Conference this summer in Utah.  We (mostly they) show the feasibility of using small satellites to measure upward radiance from Earth at night, with examples ranging from the Middle East to Southern California.  I’m glad to have offered the concept of “darkest path” modeling for wildlife connectivity and perspectives on the usefulness of spectral information at this scale. The work we have been doing with the VIIRS Day-Night Band shows up for the identification of a very bright greenhouse on the Oxnard Plain.  Here is the citation, abstract, and download link.

Pack, D. W., B. S. Hardy, and T. Longcore. 2017. Studying Earth at night from CubeSats. Proceedings of the 31st Annual AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites, Leo Missions, SSC17-WK-35.

This paper presents examples of the latest imaging data of the Earth at night from multiple CubeSat platforms. Beginning in 2012, with AeroCube-4, The Aerospace Corporation has launched multiple CubeSat platforms in different orbits equipped with a common suite of CMOS sensors. Originally designed as utility cameras to assist with attitude control system studies and star sensor development, we have been using these simple camera sensors to image the Earth at night since 2014. Our initial work focused on observing nighttime urban lights and global gas flare signals at higher resolution than is possible with the VIIRS sensor. To achieve optimum sensitivity and resolution, orbital motion is compensated for via the use of on-board reaction wheels to perform point-and-stare experiments, often with multiple frame exposures as the sensor moves in orbit. Ground sample distances for these systems range from approximately 100 to 130 meters for the narrow-field-of-view cameras, to 500 meters for the medium-field-of-view cameras. In our initial work, we demonstrated that CMOS sensors flown on AeroCube satellites can achieve a nighttime light detection sensitivity on the order of 20 nW-cm-2-sr-1. This resolution and sensitivity allows for detection of urban lighting, road networks, major infrastructure illumination, natural gas flares, and other phenomena of interest. For wide-area surveys, we can also program our cameras to observe regions of interest and co-add pixels to reduce the data bandwidth. This allows for a greater number of frames to be collected and downloaded. These results may then be used to task later satellite passes. Here, we present new examples of our nighttime Earth observation studies using CubeSats. These include: 1) detecting urban growth and change via repeat imaging, 2) investigating the utility of color observations, 3) spotting major sources of light pollution, 4) studying urban-wildland interface regions where lighting may be important to understanding wildlife corridors, 5) imaging lightning and cloud cover at night using wide-area imaging, 6) observations of the very bright lights of fishing boats, and 7) observing other interesting natural phenomenon, including airglow emissions, and the streaking caused by proton strikes in the South Atlantic Anomaly. Our ongoing work includes utilizing a diversity in overpass times from multiple satellites to observe nighttime scenes, imaging high-latitude cities not optimally accessed by the international space station’s cameras, and building a catalogue of observations of rapidly developing megacities and global infrastructure nodes. Data from CMOS sensors flown in common on 5 different AeroCubes in 4 different orbits have been collected. Our results show that enhanced CubeSat sensors can improve mapping of the human footprint in targeted regions via nighttime lights and contribute to better monitoring of: urban growth, light pollution, energy usage, the urban-wildland interface, the improvement of electrical power grids in developing countries, light-induced fisheries, and oil industry flare activity. Future CubeSat sensors should be able to contribute to nightlights monitoring efforts by organizations such as NOAA, NASA, ESA, the World Bank and others, and offer low-cost options for nighttime studies.