Towards a satellite system for archaeology? Simulation of an optical satellite mission with ideal spatial and temporal resolution, illustrated by a case study in Scotland

Ciara N. McGrath, Charlie Scott, Dave Cowley, Malcolm Macdonald

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Applications of remote sensing data for archaeology rely heavily on repurposed data, which carry inherent limitations in their suitability to help address archaeological questions. Through a case study framed around archaeological imperatives in a Scottish context, this work investigates the potential for existing satellite systems to provide remote sensing data that meet defined specifications for archaeological prospection, considering both spatial and temporal resolution, concluding that the availability of commercial data is currently insufficient. Tasking a commercial constellation of 12 spacecraft to collect images of a 150 km 2 region in Scotland through the month of July 2020 provided 26 images with less than 50% cloud cover. Following an analysis of existing systems, this paper presents a high-level mission architecture for a bespoke satellite system designed from an archaeological specification. This study focuses on orbit design and the number of spacecraft needed to meet the spatial and temporal resolution requirements for archaeological site detection and monitoring in a case study of Scotland, using existing imaging technology. By exploring what an ideal scenario might look like from a satellite mission planning perspective, this paper presents a simulation analysis that foregrounds archaeological imperatives and specifies a satellite constellation design on that basis. High-level design suggests that a system of eight 100 kg spacecraft in a 581 km altitude orbit could provide coverage at a desired temporal and spatial resolution of two-weekly revisit and <1 m ground sampling distance, respectively. The potential for such a system to be more widely applied in regions of similar latitude and climate is discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Article number4100
Number of pages19
JournalRemote Sensing
Issue number24
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2020


  • archaeological remote sensing
  • satellite mission design
  • satellite archaeology
  • archaeological survey

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