Small satellite formations and constellations for observing sub-daily mass changes in the Earth system

Nikolas Pfaffenzeller, Roland Pail

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Satellite gravity missions so far are medium size satellites consisting of one or a pair of satellites flying in near-polar or sun-synchronous orbital planes. Due to the limited observation geometry and the related space–time sampling, high-frequency non-tidal mass variation signals from atmosphere and ocean cannot be observed and cause temporal aliasing. For current single-pair satellite gravimetry missions as GRACE and GRACE Follow-On (GRACE-FO) temporal aliasing is the limiting factor and represents the major error source in the gravity field time-series. Adding a second inclined satellite pair to a GRACE-like polar pair (Bender constellation) currently is the most promising solution to increase the spatio-temporal resolution and to significantly reduce the temporal aliasing error. This shall be implemented with the MAGIC mission in future. With the ongoing developments in miniaturization of satellites and gravity-relevant instruments (accelerometers and intersatellite ranging), in future constellations of multiple small satellite pairs may solve this problem even beyond the capabilities of a Bender constellation. Therefore, in this study the capabilities of such constellations flying in specific formations are investigated in order to enable a retrieval of the temporal gravity field on short time scales. We assess the performance of up to 18 satellite pairs. The satellite configurations cover satellite pairs in polar and inclined orbits flying in pair-wise or pearl-string formation with varying mean anomalies and right ascensions of the ascending node (RAAN). As future potential miniaturized instruments optomechanical accelerometers with similar performance as those flying on GRACE-FO are a candidate, while for the intersatellite ranging instrument still some technological development is required. Therefore, in this study a microwave ranging system equivalent to the GRACE and GRACE-FO instruments performance is taken as baseline assuming that such instruments can be miniaturized in future as well. In numerical closed-loop simulations, up to nine different satellite configurations with up to 18 satellite pairs are evaluated based on the retrieval of the non-tidal temporal gravity field on a monthly basis. From the simulation results it is concluded that the best-performing satellite constellation of 18 polar satellite pairs already is outperformed by a typical Bender-like constellation of 1 polar and 1 inclined pair. In general, we identify that increasing the number of satellite pairs leads to an improved gravity field retrieval, either at low spherical harmonic degree and order (d/o) by the shift in RAAN or at high d/o by the shift in mean anomaly. By a two-step simulation approach, co-estimating also (sub-)daily gravity fields for selected configurations with a large number of satellite pairs distributed equally over the globe, it is possible to retrieve stand-alone gravity fields at 24, 12 and 6 hr temporal resolution. Ultimately it is concluded that a network of miniaturized satellites with instrument performances similar to GRACE-FO and flying in a well-defined constellation has the potential to observe (sub-)daily mass variations and therefore could drastically reduce the problem of temporal aliasing due to high frequency mass variations in the Earth system.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1550-1567
Number of pages18
JournalGeophysical Journal International
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2023


  • Numerical simulation
  • Satellite constellations
  • Satellite geodesy
  • Satellite gravity
  • Time variable gravity


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