SSTL demonstrates new GNSS-R capabilities

September 29, 2020  - By

The successful demo consolidates concept designs for a proposed land-sensing ESA Scout mission, HydroGNSS

Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) has successfully demonstrated GNSS reflectometry (GNSS-R) from its 18-kg DoT-1 satellite. SSTL has pioneered the new field of GNSS-R with successful payloads on board TechDemoSat-1 and the CYGNSS constellation, and is continuing to develop the technology and data analysis in pursuit of this new science.

SSTL's DoT-1 satellite

SSTL’s DoT-1 satellite was launched in 2019. (Photo: SSTL)

The GNSS-R payload onboard the DoT-1 satellite is incorporated within a new small-form-factor Core Avionics module integral to all SSTL’s future satellite platforms. This innovation paves the way for any SSTL satellite that can accommodate a nadir pointing antenna to become part of a GNSS-R small-sat constellation.

GNSS reflectometry is an Earth-observation technique that uses GNSS signals as L-band radar sources, allowing the satellite to take measurements of ocean wind speeds, polar ice and hydrological land parameters, at a higher spatial resolution and an order of magnitude lower cost than other methods.

“GNSS-R is a powerful new science that can contribute valuable data to help monitor changes in our global climate, and I am really pleased with the success of our DoT-1 demonstration.,” said Phil Brownnett, managing director of SSTL. “We now have an advanced instrument design and deep expertise in this new field, and I am hopeful that SSTL’s HydroGNSS concept will progress to a full mission to support the global climate-control challenge.”

HydroGNSS mission

The GNSS-R technology demonstration from SSTL’s DoT-1 satellite is also an important stepping stone for a proposed European Space Agency (ESA) Scout Mission Concept called HydroGNSS, which comprises two 40-kg satellites that collect data continually in near-polar orbits, taking hydrological measurements over the whole globe.

The HydroGNSS mission concept makes advanced use of new GNSS reflectometry techniques such as Galileo signals, dual polarization, and coherent signal acquisition to measure four Essential Climate Variables (ECVs) over land: soil moisture, inundation, permafrost freeze/thaw, and biomass. HydroGNSS has been down-selected by ESA for a concept study; the finally selected Scout mission will commence in 2021.

The below animated video illustrates the HydroGNSS mission.

SSTL’s GNSS-R instrument collects and processes measurements into a “delay Doppler map” (DDM) that can be corrected and inverted into Level 2 products such as ocean wind speed, as has already been successfully demonstrated by the SSTL GNSS-R instruments onboard the TechDemoSat-1 and CYGNSS missions.

The plot below shows results from data gathered by the DoT-1 satellite on Aug. 12, and shows simultaneous DDMs from four separate GPS satellites. As this is a forward scattering technique, the stronger signals with redder peaks indicate a calmer ocean with lower wind speeds. Approximately 40 minutes of data were collected from the Pacific to the Antarctic to the Southern Ocean.

DoT-1 sub-satellite track (white) and GPS reflection tracks (yellow) collected during 40 minute data operation. (Image: SSTL)

DoT-1 sub-satellite track (white) and GPS reflection tracks (yellow) collected during 40 minute data operation. (Image: SSTL)

Four Delay Doppler Maps (DDMs) collected by DoT-1 that show signal reflections from four GPS satellites. (Image: SSTL)

Four Delay Doppler Maps (DDMs) collected by DoT-1 that show signal reflections from four GPS satellites. (Image: SSTL)

Soil moisture measurements

Data from the SSTL GNSS-R instruments onboard the CYGNSS mission have demonstrated the potential for soil moisture measurement by GNSS reflectometry, and preliminary work shows that GNSS-R also has good sensitivity for freeze/thaw sensing in the active zone of permafrost. Unseasonal changes in the permafrost cycles could potentially release larger quantities of methane, which risks exacerbating global climate change.

GNSS-R can also be used to assess biomass, a measure of forest density which acts as a vital sink for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In addition to longer term climate observations, soil moisture and inundation measurements from GNSS reflectometry can provide important information for short-term operational purposes, for example, towards Numerical Weather Prediction and flood warnings following rainfall events.

The development of SSTL’s new GNSS-R instrument was funded in part by the European Space Agency.

About the Author: Tracy Cozzens

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.