Investigation of Very Low Earth Orbits (VLEOs) for global spaceborne Lidar

Ciara McGrath, Christopher Lowe, Malcolm Macdonald, Steven Hancock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
13 Downloads (Pure)


Very Low Earth Orbits (VLEOs) have been proposed as a beneficial space mission regime due to their propensity to increase instrument spatial resolution and reduce launch cost per unit mass. However, for visual instruments, these benefits come at the cost of a decreased instrument swath width. This reduction results in longer revisit periods for regions on Earth and longer time until global coverage is achieved. Conversely, light detection and ranging (lidar) as an active remote sensing technique, can benefit from larger swath widths at lower altitudes, due to the increased signal-to-noise ratio. Investigation of this relationship shows that lidar swath width is inversely proportional to altitude squared, and, as a result, the number of spacecraft required to provide a desired lidar coverage also decreases approximately in inverse proportion to altitude squared. Investigation of suitable propulsion systems shows that although propellant mass and number of thrusters required for orbit maintenance increases with decreasing altitude, the overall system mass, and hence launch cost, will, in general, tend to decrease with decreasing altitude due to the lower number of spacecraft required. For a given mission, spacecraft bus, and propulsion system, a VLEO altitude can be identified that will result in the minimum overall mission cost.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)625-636
Number of pages12
JournalCEAS Space Journal
Issue number4
Early online date22 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2022


  • Very Low Earth Orbits (VLEOs)
  • Earth orbits
  • light detection and ranging


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