Satellites and sensors - Lecture Note - Lecture Material
Satellites and sensors

On the Ground, In the Air, In Space

Recording of energy by the sensor

In Chapter 1 we learned some of the fundamental concepts required to understand the process that encompasses remote sensing. We covered in some detail the first three components of this process: the energy source, interaction of energy with the atmosphere, and interaction of energy with the surface. We touched briefly on the fourth component - recording of energy by the sensor - when we discussed passive vs. active sensors and characteristics of images. In this chapter, we will take a closer look at this component of the remote sensing process by examining in greater detail, the characteristics of remote sensing platforms and sensors and the data they collect. We will also touch briefly on how those data are processed once they have been recorded by the sensor.

Photograph of a ground-based sensor

In order for a sensor to collect and record energy reflected or emitted from a target or surface, it must reside on a stable platform removed from the target or surface being observed. Platforms for remote sensors may be situated on the ground, on an aircraft or balloon (or some other platform within the Earth's atmosphere), or on a spacecraft or satellite outside of the Earth's atmosphere.

Ground-based sensors are often used to record detailed information about the surface which is compared with information collected from aircraft or satellite sensors. In some cases, this can be used to better characterize the target which is being imaged by these other sensors, making it possible to better understand the information in the imagery.


Sensors may be placed on a ladder, scaffolding, tall building, cherry-picker, crane, etc. Aerial platforms are primarily stable wing aircraft, although helicopters are occasionally used. Aircraft are often used to collect very detailed images and facilitate the collection of data over virtually any portion of the Earth's surface at any time.

Space shuttle

In space, remote sensing is sometimes conducted from the space shuttle or, more commonly, from satellites. Satellites are objects which revolve around another object - in this case, the Earth. For example, the moon is a natural satellite, whereas man-made satellites include those platforms launched for remote sensing, communication, and telemetry (location and navigation) purposes. Because of their orbits, satellites permit repetitive coverage of the Earth's surface on a continuing basis. Cost is often a significant factor in choosing among the various platform options.


Did you know?

  • High wing aircraft are preferable to low wing aircraft for hand-held aerial photography.
  • The 'drop hatch' in aircraft such as the DeHavilland "Beaver" and "Otter" are convenient to use for vertical aerial photography without performing aircraft structural modifications.
  • Oblique aerial photography can preferably be done through an open window rather than through window glass/plastic.
  • Photography through the aircraft door opening (having removed the door prior to flight) is also frequently done.
  • Tethered balloons provide an inexpensive photography platform for long-term monitoring of a specific site.


Satellite Characteristics: Orbits and Swaths

We learned in the previous section that remote sensing instruments can be placed on a variety of platforms to view and image targets. Although ground-based and aircraft platforms may be used, satellites provide a great deal of the remote sensing imagery commonly used today. Satellites have several unique characteristics which make them particularly useful for remote sensing of the Earth's surface.

Geostationary orbits

The path followed by a satellite is referred to as its orbit. Satellite orbits are matched to the capability and objective of the sensor(s) they carry. Orbit selection can vary in terms of altitude (their height above the Earth's surface) and their orientation and rotation relative to the Earth. Satellites at very high altitudes, which view the same portion of the Earth's surface at all times have geostationary orbits. These geostationary satellites, at altitudes of approximately 36,000 kilometres, revolve at speeds which match the rotation of the Earth so they seem stationary, relative to the Earth's surface. This allows the satellites to observe and collect information continuously over specific areas. Weather and communications satellites commonly have these types of orbits. Due to their high altitude, some geostationary weather satellites can monitor weather and cloud patterns covering an entire hemisphere of the Earth.

Near-polar orbits

Many remote sensing platforms are designed to follow an orbit (basically north-south) which, in conjunction with the Earth's rotation (west-east), allows them to cover most of the Earth's surface over a certain period of time. These are near-polar orbits, so named for the inclination of the orbit relative to a line running between the North and South poles. Many of these satellite orbits are also sun-synchronous such that they cover each area of the world at a constant local time of day called local sun time. At any given latitude, the position of the sun in the sky as the satellite passes overhead will be the same within the same season. This ensures consistent illumination conditions when acquiring images in a specific season over successive years, or over a particular area over a series of days. This is an important factor for monitoring changes between images or for mosaicking adjacent images together, as they do not have to be corrected for different illumination conditions.

Ascending and descending passes

Most of the remote sensing satellite platforms today are in near-polar orbits, which means that the satellite travels northwards on one side of the Earth and then toward the southern pole on the second half of its orbit. These are called ascending and descending passes, respectively. If the orbit is also sun-synchronous, the ascending pass is most likely on the shadowed side of the Earth while the descending pass is on the sunlit side. Sensors recording reflected solar energy only image the surface on a descending pass, when solar illumination is available. Active sensors which provide their own illumination or passive sensors that record emitted (e.g. thermal) radiation can also image the surface on ascending passes.


As a satellite revolves around the Earth, the sensor "sees" a certain portion of the Earth's surface. The area imaged on the surface, is referred to as the swath. Imaging swaths for spaceborne sensors generally vary between tens and hundreds of kilometres wide. As the satellite orbits the Earth from pole to pole, its east-west position wouldn't change if the Earth didn't rotate. However, as seen from the Earth, it seems that the satellite is shifting westward because the Earth is rotating (from west to east) beneath it. This apparent movement allows the satellite swath to cover a new area with each consecutive pass. The satellite's orbit and the rotation of the Earth work together to allow complete coverage of the Earth's surface, after it has completed one complete cycle of orbits.

New area with each consecutive pass

If we start with any randomly selected pass in a satellite's orbit, an orbit cycle will be completed when the satellite retraces its path, passing over the same point on the Earth's surface directly below the satellite (called the nadir point) for a second time. The exact length of time of the orbital cycle will vary with each satellite. The interval of time required for the satellite to complete its orbit cycle is not the same as the "revisit period". Using steerable sensors, an satellite-borne instrument can view an area (off-nadir) before and after the orbit passes over a target, thus making the 'revisit' time less than the orbit cycle time. The revisit period is an important consideration for a number of monitoring applications, especially when frequent imaging is required (for example, to monitor the spread of an oil spill, or the extent of flooding). In near-polar orbits, areas at high latitudes will be imaged more frequently than the equatorial zone due to the increasing overlap in adjacent swaths as the orbit paths come closer together near the poles.

Overlap in adjacent swaths

Did you know?

"...the forecast calls for scattered clouds with the possibility of rain..."

...most of the images you see on television weather forecasts are from geostationary satellites. This is because they provide broad coverage of the weather and cloud patterns on continental scales. Meteorologists (weather forecasters) use these images to help them determine in which direction the weather patterns are likely to go. The high repeat coverage capability of satellites with geostationary orbits allows them to collect several images daily to allow these patterns to be closely monitored.

...satellites occasionally require their orbits to be corrected. Because of atmospheric drag and other forces that occur when a satellite is in orbit, they may deviate from their initial orbital path. In order to maintain the planned orbit, a control center on the ground will issue commands to the satellite to place it back in the proper orbit. Most satellites and their sensors have a finite life-span ranging from a few to several years. Either the sensor will cease to function adequately or the satellite will suffer severe orbit decay such that the system is no longer useable.


Spatial Resolution, Pixel Size, and Scale

For some remote sensing instruments, the distance between the target being imaged and the platform, plays a large role in determining the detail of information obtained and the total area imaged by the sensor. Sensors onboard platforms far away from their targets, typically view a larger area, but cannot provide great detail. Compare what an astronaut onboard the space shuttle sees of the Earth to what you can see from an airplane. The astronaut might see your whole province or country in one glance, but couldn't distinguish individual houses. Flying over a city or town, you would be able to see individual buildings and cars, but you would be viewing a much smaller area than the astronaut. There is a similar difference between satellite images and airphotos.

Instantaneous Field of ViewThe detail discernible in an image is dependent on the spatial resolution of the sensor and refers to the size of the smallest possible feature that can be detected. Spatial resolution of passive sensors (we will look at the special case of active microwave sensors later) depends primarily on their Instantaneous Field of View (IFOV). The IFOV is the angular cone of visibility of the sensor (A) and determines the area on the Earth's surface which is "seen" from a given altitude at one particular moment in time (B). The size of the area viewed is determined by multiplying the IFOV by the distance from the ground to the sensor (C). This area on the ground is called the resolution cell and determines a sensor's maximum spatial resolution. For a homogeneous feature to be detected, its size generally has to be equal to or larger than the resolution cell. If the feature is smaller than this, it may not be detectable as the average brightness of all features in that resolution cell will be recorded. However, smaller features may sometimes be detectable if their reflectance dominates within a articular resolution cell allowing sub-pixel or resolution cell detection.

As we mentioned in Chapter 1, most remote sensing images are composed of a matrix of picture elements, or pixels, which are the smallest units of an image. Image pixels are normally square and represent a certain area on an image. It is important to distinguish between pixel size and spatial resolution - they are not interchangeable. If a sensor has a spatial resolution of 20 metres and an image from that sensor is displayed at full resolution, each pixel represents an area of 20m x 20m on the ground. In this case the pixel size and resolution are the same. However, it is possible to display an image with a pixel size different than the resolution. Many posters of satellite images of the Earth have their pixels averaged to represent larger areas, although the original spatial resolution of the sensor that collected the imagery remains the same.

Coarse or low resolution image fine or high resolution image

Images where only large features are visible are said to have coarse or low resolution. In fine or high resolution images, small objects can be detected. Military sensors for example, are designed to view as much detail as possible, and therefore have very fine resolution. Commercial satellites provide imagery with resolutions varying from a few metres to several kilometres. Generally speaking, the finer the resolution, the less total ground area can be seen.

The ratio of distance on an image or map, to actual ground distance is referred to as scale. If you had a map with a scale of 1:100,000, an object of 1cm length on the map would actually be an object 100,000cm (1km) long on the ground. Maps or images with small "map-to-ground ratios" are referred to as small scale (e.g. 1:100,000), and those with larger ratios (e.g. 1:5,000) are called large scale.

Did you know?

If the IFOV for all pixels of a scanner stays constant (which is often the case), then the ground area represented by pixels at the nadir will have a larger scale then those pixels which are off-nadir. This means that spatial resolution will vary from the image centre to the swath edge.

High wing aircraft


Spectral Resolution

Different rock types

In Chapter 1, we learned about spectral response and spectral emissivity curves which characterize the reflectance and/or emittance of a feature or target over a variety of wavelengths. Different classes of features and details in an image can often be distinguished by comparing their responses over distinct wavelength ranges. Broad classes, such as water and vegetation, can usually be separated using very broad wavelength ranges - the visible and near infrared - as we learned in section 1.5. Other more specific classes, such as different rock types, may not be easily distinguishable using either of these broad wavelength ranges and would require comparison at much finer wavelength ranges to separate them. Thus, we would require a sensor with higher spectral resolution. Spectral resolution describes the ability of a sensor to define fine wavelength intervals. The finer the spectral resolution, the narrower the wavelength range for a particular channel or band.

Spectral resolution

Black and white film records wavelengths extending over much, or all of the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Its spectral resolution is fairly coarse, as the various wavelengths of the visible spectrum are not individually distinguished and the overall reflectance in the entire visible portion is recorded. Colour film is also sensitive to the reflected energy over the visible portion of the spectrum, but has higher spectral resolution, as it is individually sensitive to the reflected energy at the blue, green, and red wavelengths of the spectrum. Thus, it can represent features of various colours based on their reflectance in each of these distinct wavelength ranges.

Many remote sensing systems record energy over several separate wavelength ranges at various spectral resolutions. These are referred to as multi-spectral sensors and will be described in some detail in following sections. Advanced multi-spectral sensors called hyperspectral sensors, detect hundreds of very narrow spectral bands throughout the visible, near-infrared, and mid-infrared portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Their very high spectral resolution facilitates fine discrimination between different targets based on their spectral response in each of the narrow bands.


Radiometric Resolution

While the arrangement of pixels describes the spatial structure of an image, the radiometric characteristics describe the actual information content in an image. Every time an image is acquired on film or by a sensor, its sensitivity to the magnitude of the electromagnetic energy determines the radiometric resolution. The radiometric resolution of an imaging system describes its ability to discriminate very slight differences in energy The finer the radiometric resolution of a sensor, the more sensitive it is to detecting small differences in reflected or emitted energy.

Comparing a 2-bit image with an 8-bit image Comparing a 2-bit image with an 8-bit image

Imagery data are represented by positive digital numbers which vary from 0 to (one less than) a selected power of 2. This range corresponds to the number of bits used for coding numbers in binary format. Each bit records an exponent of power 2 (e.g. 1 bit=2 1=2). The maximum number of brightness levels available depends on the number of bits used in representing the energy recorded. Thus, if a sensor used 8 bits to record the data, there would be 28=256 digital values available, ranging from 0 to 255. However, if only 4 bits were used, then only 24=16 values ranging from 0 to 15 would be available. Thus, the radiometric resolution would be much less. Image data are generally displayed in a range of grey tones, with black representing a digital number of 0 and white representing the maximum value (for example, 255 in 8-bit data). By comparing a 2-bit image with an 8-bit image, we can see that there is a large difference in the level of detail discernible depending on their radiometric resolutions.

Did you know?

" just can't have it all!..."

...that there are trade-offs between spatial, spectral, and radiometric resolution which must be taken into consideration when engineers design a sensor. For high spatial resolution, the sensor has to have a small IFOV (Instantaneous Field of View). However, this reduces the amount of energy that can be detected as the area of the ground resolution cell within the IFOV becomes smaller. This leads to reduced radiometric resolution - the ability to detect fine energy differences. To increase the amount of energy detected (and thus, the radiometric resolution) without reducing spatial resolution, we would have to broaden the wavelength range detected for a particular channel or band. Unfortunately, this would reduce the spectral resolution of the sensor. Conversely, coarser spatial resolution would allow improved radiometric and/or spectral resolution. Thus, these three types of resolution must be balanced against the desired capabilities and objectives of the sensor.


Temporal Resolution

In addition to spatial, spectral, and radiometric resolution, the concept of temporal resolution is also important to consider in a remote sensing system. We alluded to this idea in section 2.2 when we discussed the concept of revisit period, which refers to the length of time it takes for a satellite to complete one entire orbit cycle. The revisit period of a satellite sensor is usually several days. Therefore the absolute temporal resolution of a remote sensing system to image the exact same area at the same viewing angle a second time is equal to this period. However, because of some degree of overlap in the imaging swaths of adjacent orbits for most satellites and the increase in this overlap with increasing latitude, some areas of the Earth tend to be re-imaged more frequently. Also, some satellite systems are able to point their sensors to image the same area between different satellite passes separated by periods from one to five days. Thus, the actual temporal resolution of a sensor depends on a variety of factors, including the satellite/sensor capabilities, the swath overlap, and latitude.

Graphic showing two satellites pointing their sensors to image the same area

The ability to collect imagery of the same area of the Earth's surface at different periods of time is one of the most important elements for applying remote sensing data. Spectral characteristics of features may change over time and these changes can be detected by collecting and comparing multi-temporal imagery. For example, during the growing season, most species of vegetation are in a continual state of change and our ability to monitor those subtle changes using remote sensing is dependent on when and how frequently we collect imagery. By imaging on a continuing basis at different times we are able to monitor the changes that take place on the Earth's surface, whether they are naturally occurring (such as changes in natural vegetation cover or flooding) or induced by humans (such as urban development or deforestation). The time factor in imaging is important when:

  • persistent clouds offer limited clear views of the Earth's surface (often in the tropics)
  • short-lived phenomena (floods, oil slicks, etc.) need to be imaged
  • multi-temporal comparisons are required (e.g. the spread of a forest disease from one year to the next)
  • the changing appearance of a feature over time can be used to distinguish it from near-similar features (wheat / maize)


Cameras and Aerial Photography

Framing systemsCameras and their use for aerial photography are the simplest and oldest of sensors used for remote sensing of the Earth's surface. Cameras are framing systems which acquire a near-instantaneous "snapshot" of an area (A), of the surface. Camera systems are passive optical sensors that use a lens (B) (or system of lenses collectively referred to as the optics) to form an image at the focal plane (C), the plane at which an image is sharply defined.

Photographic films are sensitive to light from 0.3 μm to 0.9 μm in wavelength covering the ultraviolet (UV), visible, and near-infrared (NIR). Panchromatic films are sensitive to the UV and the visible portions of the spectrum. Panchromatic film produces black and white images and is the most common type of film used for aerial photography. UV photography also uses panchromatic film, but a filter is used with the camera to absorb and block the visible energy from reaching the film. As a result, only the UV reflectance from targets is recorded. UV photography is not widely used, because of the atmospheric scattering and absorption that occurs in this region of the spectrum. Black and white infrared photography uses film sensitive to the entire 0.3 to 0.9 μm wavelength range and is useful for detecting differences in vegetation cover, due to its sensitivity to IR reflectance.

Normal colour photograph False colour photograph

Colour and false colour (or colour infrared, CIR) photography involves the use of a three layer film with each layer sensitive to different ranges of light. For a normal colour photograph, the layers are sensitive to blue, green, and red light - the same as our eyes. These photos appear to us the same way that our eyes see the environment, as the colours resemble those which would appear to us as "normal" (i.e. trees appear green, etc.). In colour infrared (CIR) photography, the three emulsion layers are sensitive to green, red, and the photographic portion of near-infrared radiation, which are processed to appear as blue, green, and red, respectively. In a false colour photograph, targets with high near-infrared reflectance appear red, those with a high red reflectance appear green, and those with a high green reflectance appear blue, thus giving us a "false" presentation of the targets relative to the colour we normally perceive them to be.

Cameras can be used on a variety of platforms including ground-based stages, helicopters, aircraft, and spacecraft. Very detailed photographs taken from aircraft are useful for many applications where identification of detail or small targets is required. The ground coverage of a photo depends on several factors, including the focal length of the lens, the platform altitude, and the format and size of the film. The focal length effectively controls the angular field of view of the lens (similar to the concept of instantaneous field of view discussed in section 2.3) and determines the area "seen" by the camera. Typical focal lengths used are 90mm, 210mm, and most commonly, 152mm. The longer the focal length, the smaller the area covered on the ground, but with greater detail (i.e. larger scale). The area covered also depends on the altitude of the platform. At high altitudes, a camera will "see" a larger area on the ground than at lower altitudes, but with reduced detail (i.e. smaller scale). Aerial photos can provide fine detail down to spatial resolutions of less than 50 cm. A photo's exact spatial resolution varies as a complex function of many factors which vary with each acquisition of data.

Oblique aerial photograph

Most aerial photographs are classified as either oblique or vertical, depending on the orientation of the camera relative to the ground during acquisition. Oblique aerial photographs are taken with the camera pointed to the side of the aircraft. High oblique photographs usually include the horizon while low oblique photographs do not. Oblique photographs can be useful for covering very large areas in a single image and for depicting terrain relief and scale. However, they are not widely used for mapping as distortions in scale from the foreground to the background preclude easy measurements of distance, area, and elevation.

Vertical photographs taken with a single-lens frame camera is the most common use of aerial photography for remote sensing and mapping purposes. These cameras are specifically built for capturing a rapid sequence of photographs while limiting geometric distortion. They are often linked with navigation systems onboard the aircraft platform, to allow for accurate geographic coordinates to be instantly assigned to each photograph. Most camera systems also include mechanisms which compensate for the effect of the aircraft motion relative to the ground, in order to limit distortion as much as possible.

Flight Line

When obtaining vertical aerial photographs, the aircraft normally flies in a series of lines, each called a flight line. Photos are taken in rapid succession looking straight down at the ground, often with a 50-60 percent overlap (A) between successive photos. The overlap ensures total coverage along a flight line and also facilitates stereoscopic viewing. Successive photo pairs display the overlap region from different perspectives and can be viewed through a device called a stereoscope to see a three-dimensional view of the area, called a stereo model. Many applications of aerial photography use stereoscopic coverage and stereo viewing.

Aerial photographs are most useful when fine spatial detail is more critical than spectral information, as their spectral resolution is generally coarse when compared to data captured with electronic sensing devices. The geometry of vertical photographs is well understood and it is possible to make very accurate measurements from them, for a variety of different applications (geology, forestry, mapping, etc.). The science of making measurements from photographs is called photogrammetry and has been performed extensively since the very beginnings of aerial photography. Photos are most often interpreted manually by a human analyst (often viewed stereoscopically). They can also be scanned to create a digital image and then analyzed in a digital computer environment. In Chapter 4, we will discuss in greater detail, various methods (manually and by computer) for interpreting different types of remote sensing images.

Multiband photography uses multi-lens systems with different film-filter combinations to acquire photos simultaneously in a number of different spectral ranges. The advantage of these types of cameras is their ability to record reflected energy separately in discrete wavelength ranges, thus providing potentially better separation and identification of various features. However, simultaneous analysis of these multiple photographs can be problematic. Digital cameras, which record electromagnetic radiation electronically, differ significantly from their counterparts which use film. Instead of using film, digital cameras use a gridded array of silicon coated CCDs (charge-coupled devices) that individually respond to electromagnetic radiation. Energy reaching the surface of the CCDs causes the generation of an electronic charge which is proportional in magnitude to the "brightness" of the ground area. A digital number for each spectral band is assigned to each pixel based on the magnitude of the electronic charge. The digital format of the output image is amenable to digital analysis and archiving in a computer environment, as well as output as a hardcopy product similar to regular photos. Digital cameras also provide quicker turn-around for acquisition and retrieval of data and allow greater control of the spectral resolution. Although parameters vary, digital imaging systems are capable of collecting data with a spatial resolution of 0.3m, and with a spectral resolution of 0.012 mm to 0.3 mm. The size of the pixel arrays varies between systems, but typically ranges between 512 x 512 to 2048 x 2048.

Did you know?

"...let's take a look at the BIG PICTURE..."

Photograph of the Earth from space

...that the U.S. Space Shuttles have been used to take photographs from space. The astronauts onboard the shuttle have taken many photographs using hand-held cameras, similar to the type you would use for taking family photos. They have also used much larger and more sophisticated cameras mounted in the shuttle's cargo bay, called Large Format Cameras (LFCs). LFCs have long focal lengths (305 mm) and take high quality photographs covering several hundreds of kilometres in both dimensions. The exact dimensions depend (of course) on the height of the shuttle above the Earth. Photos from these passive sensors need to be taken when the Earth's surface is being illuminated by the sun and are subject to cloud cover and other attenuation from the atmosphere. The shuttle has also been used several times to image many regions of the Earth using a special active microwave sensor called a RADAR. The RADAR sensor can collect detailed imagery during the night or day, as it provides its own energy source, and is able to penetrate and "see" through cloud cover due to the long wavelength of the electromagnetic radiation. We will learn more about RADAR in Chapter 3.

... although taking photographs in the UV portion of the spectrum is problematic due to atmospheric scattering and absorption, it can be very useful where other types of photography are not. An interesting example in wildlife research and management has used UV photography for detecting and counting harp seals on snow and ice. Adult harp seals have dark coats while their young have white coats. In normal panchromatic imagery, the dark coats of the adult seals are readily visible against the snow and ice background but the white coats of the young seals are not. However, the coats of both the adult and infant seals are strong absorbers of UV energy. Thus, both adult and young appear very dark in a UV image and can be easily detected. This allows simple and reliable monitoring of seal population changes over very large areas.


Multispectral Scanning

Many electronic (as opposed to photographic) remote sensors acquire data using scanning systems, which employ a sensor with a narrow field of view (i.e. IFOV) that sweeps over the terrain to build up and produce a two-dimensional image of the surface. Scanning systems can be used on both aircraft and satellite platforms and have essentially the same operating principles. A scanning system used to collect data over a variety of different wavelength ranges is called a multispectral scanner (MSS), and is the most commonly used scanning system. There are two main modes or methods of scanning employed to acquire multispectral image data - across-track scanning, and along-track scanning.

Across-track scannersAcross-track scanners scan the Earth in a series of lines. The lines are oriented perpendicular to the direction of motion of the sensor platform (i.e. across the swath). Each line is scanned from one side of the sensor to the other, using a rotating mirror (A). As the platform moves forward over the Earth, successive scans build up a two-dimensional image of the Earth´s surface. The incoming reflected or emitted radiation is separated into several spectral components that are detected independently. The UV, visible, near-infrared, and thermal radiation are dispersed into their constituent wavelengths. A bank of internal detectors (B), each sensitive to a specific range of wavelengths, detects and measures the energy for each spectral band and then, as an electrical signal, they are converted to digital data and recorded for subsequent computer processing.

The IFOV (C) of the sensor and the altitude of the platform determine the ground resolution cell viewed (D), and thus the spatial resolution. The angular field of view (E) is the sweep of the mirror, measured in degrees, used to record a scan line, and determines the width of the imaged swath (F). Airborne scanners typically sweep large angles (between 90º and 120º), while satellites, because of their higher altitude need only to sweep fairly small angles (10-20º) to cover a broad region. Because the distance from the sensor to the target increases towards the edges of the swath, the ground resolution cells also become larger and introduce geometric distortions to the images. Also, the length of time the IFOV "sees" a ground resolution cell as the rotating mirror scans (called the dwell time), is generally quite short and influences the design of the spatial, spectral, and radiometric resolution of the sensor.

Along-track scannersAlong-track scanners also use the forward motion of the platform to record successive scan lines and build up a two-dimensional image, perpendicular to the flight direction. However, instead of a scanning mirror, they use a linear array of detectors (A) located at the focal plane of the image (B) formed by lens systems (C), which are "pushed" along in the flight track direction (i.e. along track). These systems are also referred to as pushbroom scanners, as the motion of the detector array is analogous to the bristles of a broom being pushed along a floor. Each individual detector measures the energy for a single ground resolution cell (D) and thus the size and IFOV of the detectors determines the spatial resolution of the system. A separate linear array is required to measure each spectral band or channel. For each scan line, the energy detected by each detector of each linear array is sampled electronically and digitally recorded.

Along-track scanners with linear arrays have several advantages over across-track mirror scanners. The array of detectors combined with the pushbroom motion allows each detector to "see" and measure the energy from each ground resolution cell for a longer period of time (dwell time). This allows more energy to be detected and improves the radiometric resolution. The increased dwell time also facilitates smaller IFOVs and narrower bandwidths for each detector. Thus, finer spatial and spectral resolution can be achieved without impacting radiometric resolution. Because detectors are usually solid-state microelectronic devices, they are generally smaller, lighter, require less power, and are more reliable and last longer because they have no moving parts. On the other hand, cross-calibrating thousands of detectors to achieve uniform sensitivity across the array is necessary and complicated.

Regardless of whether the scanning system used is either of these two types, it has several advantages over photographic systems. The spectral range of photographic systems is restricted to the visible and near-infrared regions while MSS systems can extend this range into the thermal infrared. They are also capable of much higher spectral resolution than photographic systems. Multi-band or multispectral photographic systems use separate lens systems to acquire each spectral band. This may cause problems in ensuring that the different bands are comparable both spatially and radiometrically and with registration of the multiple images. MSS systems acquire all spectral bands simultaneously through the same optical system to alleviate these problems. Photographic systems record the energy detected by means of a photochemical process which is difficult to measure and to make consistent. Because MSS data are recorded electronically, it is easier to determine the specific amount of energy measured, and they can record over a greater range of values in a digital format. Photographic systems require a continuous supply of film and processing on the ground after the photos have been taken. The digital recording in MSS systems facilitates transmission of data to receiving stations on the ground and immediate processing of data in a computer environment.

Did you know?

"...backfield in motion..."

Diagram of a slit camera

There is a photographic parallel to the push-broom scanner. It is based on the "slit camera". This camera does not have a shutter per se, but a slit (A) running in the across-track direction, which exposes film (B) which is being moved continuously (C) past the slit. The speed of motion of the film has to be proportional to the ground speed (D) of the aircraft. Thus the film speed has to be adjusted for the flying circumstances of the moment. The slit width (E) in the along-track direction is also adjustable so as to control exposure time. There are no individual photo 'frames' produced, but a continuous strip of imagery. Stereo slit photography is also possible, using a twin-lens system aimed slightly apart from parallel and each exposing one half of the film width.


Thermal Imaging

Thermal sensors

Many multispectral (MSS) systems sense radiation in the thermal infrared as well as the visible and reflected infrared portions of the spectrum. However, remote sensing of energy emitted from the Earth's surface in the thermal infrared (3 μm to 15 μm) is different than the sensing of reflected energy. Thermal sensors use photo detectors sensitive to the direct contact of photons on their surface, to detect emitted thermal radiation. The detectors are cooled to temperatures close to absolute zero in order to limit their own thermal emissions. Thermal sensors essentially measure the surface temperature and thermal properties of targets.


Thermal imagers are typically across-track scanners (like those described in the previous section) that detect emitted radiation in only the thermal portion of the spectrum. Thermal sensors employ one or more internal temperature references for comparison with the detected radiation, so they can be related to absolute radiant temperature. The data are generally recorded on film and/or magnetic tape and the temperature resolution of current sensors can reach 0.1 °C. For analysis, an image of relative radiant temperatures (a thermogram) is depicted in grey levels, with warmer temperatures shown in light tones, and cooler temperatures in dark tones. Imagery which portrays relative temperature differences in their relative spatial locations are sufficient for most applications. Absolute temperature measurements may be calculated but require accurate calibration and measurement of the temperature references and detailed knowledge of the thermal properties of the target, geometric distortions, and radiometric effects.

Because of the relatively long wavelength of thermal radiation (compared to visible radiation), atmospheric scattering is minimal. However, absorption by atmospheric gases normally restricts thermal sensing to two specific regions - 3 to 5 μm and 8 to 14 μm. Because energy decreases as the wavelength increases, thermal sensors generally have large IFOVs to ensure that enough energy reaches the detector in order to make a reliable measurement. Therefore the spatial resolution of thermal sensors is usually fairly coarse, relative to the spatial resolution possible in the visible and reflected infrared. Thermal imagery can be acquired during the day or night (because the radiation is emitted not reflected) and is used for a variety of applications such as military reconnaissance, disaster management (forest fire mapping), and heat loss monitoring.


Geometric Distortion in Imagery

Any remote sensing image, regardless of whether it is acquired by a multispectral scanner on board a satellite, a photographic system in an aircraft, or any other platform/sensor combination, will have various geometric distortions. This problem is inherent in remote sensing, as we attempt to accurately represent the three-dimensional surface of the Earth as a two-dimensional image. All remote sensing images are subject to some form of geometric distortions, depending on the manner in which the data are acquired. These errors may be due to a variety of factors, including one or more of the following, to name only a few:

  • the perspective of the sensor optics,
  • the motion of the scanning system,
  • the motion and (in)stability of the platform,
  • the platform altitude, attitude, and velocity,
  • the terrain relief, and
  • the curvature and rotation of the Earth.

Relief displacement

Framing systems, such as cameras used for aerial photography, provide an instantaneous "snapshot" view of the Earth from directly overhead. The primary geometric distortion in vertical aerial photographs is due to relief displacement. Objects directly below the centre of the camera lens (i.e. at the nadir) will have only their tops visible, while all other objects will appear to lean away from the centre of the photo such that their tops and sides are visible. If the objects are tall or are far away from the centre of the photo, the distortion and positional error will be larger.

The geometry of along-track scanner imagery is similar to that of an aerial photograph for each scan line as each detector essentially takes a "snapshot" of each ground resolution cell. Geometric variations between lines are caused by random variations in platform altitude and attitude along the direction of flight.

Geometric distortion

Images from across-track scanning systems exhibit two main types of geometric distortion. They too exhibit relief displacement (A), similar to aerial photographs, but in only one direction parallel to the direction of scan. There is no displacement directly below the sensor, at nadir. As the sensor scans across the swath, the top and side of objects are imaged and appear to lean away from the nadir point in each scan line. Again, the displacement increases, moving towards the edges of the swath. Another distortion (B) occurs due to the rotation of the scanning optics. As the sensor scans across each line, the distance from the sensor to the ground increases further away from the centre of the swath. Although the scanning mirror rotates at a constant speed, the IFOV of the sensor moves faster (relative to the ground) and scans a larger area as it moves closer to the edges. This effect results in the compression of image features at points away from the nadir and is called tangential scale distortion.

All images are susceptible to geometric distortions caused by variations in platform stability including changes in their speed, altitude, and attitude (angular orientation with respect to the ground) during data acquisition. These effects are most pronounced when using aircraft platforms and are alleviated to a large degree with the use of satellite platforms, as their orbits are relatively stable, particularly in relation to their distance from the Earth. However, the eastward rotation of the Earth,during a satellite orbit causes the sweep of scanning systems to cover an area slightly to the west of each previous scan. The resultant imagery is thus skewed across the image. This is known as skew distortion and is common in imagery obtained from satellite multispectral scanners.

The sources of geometric distortion and positional error vary with each specific situation, but are inherent in remote sensing imagery. In most instances, we may be able to remove, or at least reduce these errors but they must be taken into account in each instance before attempting to make measurements or extract further information.

Now that we have learned about some of the general characteristics of platforms and sensors, in the next sections we will look at some specific sensors (primarily satellite systems) operating in the visible and infrared portions of the spectrum.

Did you know?

"...scanning for warm-bodied life forms, captain... "

...that, just as in aerial photography, some thermal scanner systems view the surface obliquely. Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) systems point ahead of the aircraft and scan across the scene. FLIR systems produce images very similar in appearance to oblique aerial photographs and are used for applications ranging from forest fire detection to law enforcement.

...many systematic, or predictable, geometric distortions can be accounted for in real-time (i.e. during image acquisition). As an example, skew distortion in across-track scanner imagery due to the Earth's rotation can be accurately modeled and easily corrected. Other random variations causing distortion cannot be as easily modeled and require geometric correction in a digital environment after the data have been collected. We will discuss this topic in more detail in Chapter 4.


Weather Satellites/Sensors

Hemispheric imageWeather monitoring and forecasting was one of the first civilian (as opposed to military) applications of satellite remote sensing, dating back to the first true weather satellite, TIROS-1 (Television and Infrared Observation Satellite - 1), launched in 1960 by the United States. Several other weather satellites were launched over the next five years, in near-polar orbits, providing repetitive coverage of global weather patterns. In 1966, NASA (the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration) launched the geostationary Applications Technology Satellite (ATS-1) which provided hemispheric images of the Earth's surface and cloud cover every half hour. For the first time, the development and movement of weather systems could be routinely monitored. Today, several countries operate weather, or meteorological satellites to monitor weather conditions around the globe. Generally speaking, these satellites use sensors which have fairly coarse spatial resolution (when compared to systems for observing land) and provide large areal coverage.

Their temporal resolutions are generally quite high, providing frequent observations of the Earth's surface, atmospheric moisture, and cloud cover, which allows for near-continuous monitoring of global weather conditions, and hence - forecasting. Here we review a few of the representative satellites/sensors used for meteorological applications.


GOES imageThe GOES (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) System is the follow-up to the ATS series. They were designed by NASA for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to provide the United States National Weather Service with frequent, small-scale imaging of the Earth's surface and cloud cover. The GOES series of satellites have been used extensively by meteorologists for weather monitoring and forecasting for over 20 years. These satellites are part of a global network of meteorological satellites spaced at approximately 70° longitude intervals around the Earth in order to provide near-global coverage. Two GOES satellites, placed in geostationary orbits 36000 km above the equator, each view approximately one-third of the Earth. One is situated at 75°W longitude and monitors North and South America and most of the Atlantic Ocean. The other is situated at 135°W longitude and monitors North America and the Pacific Ocean basin. Together they cover from 20°W to 165°E longitude. This GOES image covers a portion of the southeastern United States, and the adjacent ocean areas where many severe storms originate and develop. This image shows Hurricane Fran approaching the southeastern United States and the Bahamas in September of 1996.

Two generations of GOES satellites have been launched, each measuring emitted and reflected radiation from which atmospheric temperature, winds, moisture, and cloud cover can be derived. The first generation of satellites consisted of GOES-1 (launched 1975) through GOES-7 (launched 1992). Due to their design, these satellites were capable of viewing the Earth only a small percentage of the time (approximately five per cent). The second generation of satellites began with GOES-8 (launched 1994) and has numerous technological improvements over the first series. They provide near-continuous observation of the Earth allowing more frequent imaging (as often as every 15 minutes). This increase in temporal resolution coupled with improvements in the spatial and radiometric resolution of the sensors provides timelier information and improved data quality for forecasting meteorological conditions.

GOES-8 and the other second generation GOES satellites have separate imaging and sounding instruments. The imager has five channels sensing visible and infrared reflected and emitted solar radiation. The infrared capability allows for day and night imaging. Sensor pointing and scan selection capability enable imaging of an entire hemisphere, or small-scale imaging of selected areas. The latter allows meteorologists to monitor specific weather trouble spots to assist in improved short-term forecasting. The imager data are 10-bit radiometric resolution, and can be transmitted directly to local user terminals on the Earth's surface. The accompanying table describes the individual bands, their spatial resolution, and their meteorological applications.

GOES Bands
Band Wavelength Range (μm) Spatial Resolution Application
1 0.52 - 0.72 (visible) 1 km cloud, pollution, and haze detection; severe storm identification
2 3.78 - 4.03
(shortwave IR)
4 km identification of fog at night; discriminating water clouds and snow or ice clouds during daytime; detecting fires and volcanoes; night time determination of sea surface temperatures
3 6.47 - 7.02
(upper level water vapour)
4 km estimating regions of mid-level moisture content and advection; tracking mid-level atmospheric motion
4 10.2 - 11.2
(longwave IR)
4 km identifying cloud-drift winds, severe storms, and heavy rainfall
5 11.5 - 12.5
(IR window sensitive to water vapour)
4 km identification of low-level moisture; determination of sea surface temperature; detection of airborne dust and volcanic ash

The 19 channel sounder measures emitted radiation in 18 thermal infrared bands and reflected radiation in one visible band. These data have a spatial resolution of 8 km and 13-bit radiometric resolution. Sounder data are used for surface and cloud-top temperatures, multi-level moisture profiling in the atmosphere, and ozone distribution analysis.


NOAA is also responsible for another series of satellites which are useful for meteorological, as well as other, applications. These satellites, in sun-synchronous, near-polar orbits (830-870 km above the Earth), are part of the Advanced TIROS series (originally dating back to 1960) and provide complementary information to the geostationary meteorological satellites (such as GOES). Two satellites, each providing global coverage, work together to ensure that data for any region of the Earth is no more than six hours old. One satellite crosses the equator in the early morning from north-to-south while the other crosses in the afternoon.

The primary sensor on board the NOAA satellites, used for both meteorology and small-scale Earth observation and reconnaissance, is the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR). The AVHRR sensor detects radiation in the visible, near and mid infrared, and thermal infrared portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, over a swath width of 3000 km. The accompanying table, outlines the AVHRR bands, their wavelengths and spatial resolution (at swath nadir), and general applications of each.

Band Wavelength Range (μm) Spatial Resolution Application
1 0.58 - 0.68 (red) 1.1 km cloud, snow, and ice monitoring
2 0.725 - 1.1 (near IR) 1.1 km water, vegetation, and agriculture surveys
3 3.55 -3.93 (mid IR) 1.1 km sea surface temperature, volcanoes, and forest fire activity
4 10.3 - 11.3 (thermal IR) 1.1 km sea surface temperature, soil moisture
5 11.5 - 12.5 (thermal IR) 1.1 km sea surface temperature, soil moisture

AVHRR data can be acquired and formatted in four operational modes, differing in resolution and method of transmission. Data can be transmitted directly to the ground and viewed as data are collected, or recorded on board the satellite for later transmission and processing. The accompanying table describes the various data formats and their characteristics.

AVHRR Data Formats
Format Spatial Resolution Transmission and Processing
APT (Automatic Picture Transmission) 4 km low-resolution direct transmission and display
HRPT (High Resolution Picture Transmission) 1.1 km full-resolution direct transmission and display
GAC (Global Area Coverage) 4 km low-resolution coverage from recorded data
LAC (Local Area Coverage) 1.1 km selected full-resolution local area data from recorded data

Satellite image Although AVHRR data are widely used for weather system forecasting and analysis, the sensor is also well-suited to observation and monitoring of land features. AVHRR has much coarser spatial resolution than other typical land observations sensors (discussed in the next section), but is used extensively for monitoring regional, small-scale phenomena, including mapping of sea surface temperature, and natural vegetation and crop conditions. Mosaics covering large areas can be created from several AVHRR data sets allowing small scale analysis and mapping of broad vegetation cover.  In Canada, AVHRR data received at the Prince Albert Receiving Station Saskatchewan, are used as part of a crop information system, monitoring the health of grain crops in the Prairies throughout the growing season.

Sea surface temperatures mosaic of Canada

Other Weather Satellites

The United States operates the DMSP (Defense Meteorological Satellite Program) series of satellites which are also used for weather monitoring. These are near-polar orbiting satellites whose Operational Linescan System (OLS) sensor provides twice daily coverage with a swath width of 3000 km at a spatial resolution of 2.7 km. It has two fairly broad wavelength bands: a visible and near infrared band (0.4 to 1.1 μm) and a thermal infrared band (10.0 to 13.4 μm). An interesting feature of the sensor is its ability to acquire visible band night time imagery under very low illumination conditions. With this sensor, it is possible to collect striking images of the Earth showing (typically) the night time lights of large urban centres.

There are several other meteorological satellites in orbit, launched and operated by other countries, or groups of countries. These include Japan, with the GMS satellite series, and the consortium of European communities, with the Meteosat satellites. Both are geostationary satellites situated above the equator over Japan and Europe, respectively. Both provide half-hourly imaging of the Earth similar to GOES. GMS has two bands: 0.5 to 0.75 μm (1.25 km resolution), and 10.5 to 12.5 μm (5 km resolution). Meteosat has three bands: visible band (0.4 to 1.1 μm; 2.5 km resolution), mid-IR (5.7 to 7.1 μm; 5 km resolution), and thermal IR (10.5 to 12.5 μm; 5 km resolution).


Land Observation Satellites/Sensors
Previous (Weather Satellites/Sensors) Index (On the Ground, In the Air, In Space) Next (Marine Observation Satellites/Sensors)


Landsat-1Although many of the weather satellite systems (such as those described in the previous section) are also used for monitoring the Earth's surface, they are not optimized for detailed mapping of the land surface. Driven by the exciting views from, and great success of the early meteorological satellites in the 1960's, as well as from images taken during manned spacecraft missions, the first satellite designed specifically to monitor the Earth's surface, Landsat-1, was launched by NASA in 1972. Initially referred to as ERTS-1, (Earth Resources Technology Satellite), Landsat was designed as an experiment to test the feasibility of collecting multi-spectral Earth observation data from an unmanned satellite platform. Since that time, this highly successful program has collected an abundance of data from around the world from several Landsat satellites. Originally managed by NASA, responsibility for the Landsat program was transferred to NOAA in 1983. In 1985, the program became commercialized, providing data to civilian and applications users.

Landsat's success is due to several factors, including: a combination of sensors with spectral bands tailored to Earth observation; functional spatial resolution; and good areal coverage (swath width and revisit period). The long lifespan of the program has provided a voluminous archive of Earth resource data facilitating long term monitoring and historical records and research. All Landsat satellites are placed in near-polar, sun-synchronous orbits. The first three satellites (Landsats 1-3) are at altitudes around 900 km and have revisit periods of 18 days while the later satellites are at around 700 km and have revisit periods of 16 days. All Landsat satellites have equator crossing times in the morning to optimize illumination conditions.

A number of sensors have been on board the Landsat series of satellites, including the Return Beam Vidicon (RBV) camera systems, the MultiSpectral Scanner (MSS) systems, and the Thematic Mapper (TM). The most popular instrument in the early days of Landsat was the MultiSpectral Scanner (MSS) and later the Thematic Mapper (TM). Each of these sensors collected data over a swath width of 185 km, with a full scene being defined as 185 km x 185 km.

The MSS senses the electromagnetic radiation from the Earth's surface in four spectral bands. Each band has a spatial resolution of approximately 60 x 80 metres and a radiometric resolution of 6 bits, or 64 digital numbers. Sensing is accomplished with a line scanning device using an oscillating mirror. Six scan lines are collected simultaneously with each west-to-east sweep of the scanning mirror. The accompanying table outlines the spectral wavelength ranges for the MSS.

MSS Bands
Channel Wavelength Range (μm)
Landsat 1,2,3 Landsat 4,5
MSS 4 MSS 1 0.5 - 0.6 (green)
MSS 5 MSS 2 0.6 - 0.7 (red)
MSS 6 MSS 3 0.7 - 0.8 (near infrared)
MSS 7 MSS 4 0.8 - 1.1 (near infrared)

Routine collection of MSS data ceased in 1992, as the use of TM data, starting on Landsat 4, superseded the MSS. The TM sensor provides several improvements over the MSS sensor including: higher spatial and radiometric resolution; finer spectral bands; seven as opposed to four spectral bands; and an increase in the number of detectors per band (16 for the non-thermal channels versus six for MSS). Sixteen scan lines are captured simultaneously for each non-thermal spectral band (four for thermal band), using an oscillating mirror which scans during both the forward (west-to-east) and reverse (east-to-west) sweeps of the scanning mirror. This difference from the MSS increases the dwell time (see section 2.8) and improves the geometric and radiometric integrity of the data. Spatial resolution of TM is 30 m for all but the thermal infrared band which is 120 m. All channels are recorded over a range of 256 digital numbers (8 bits). The accompanying table outlines the spectral resolution of the individual TM bands and some useful applications of each.

TM Bands
Channel Wavelength Range (µm) Application
TM 1 0.45 - 0.52 (blue) soil/vegetation discrimination; bathymetry/coastal mapping; cultural/urban feature identification
TM 2 0.52 - 0.60 (green) green vegetation mapping (measures reflectance peak); cultural/urban feature identification
TM 3 0.63 - 0.69 (red) vegetated vs. non-vegetated and plant species discrimination (plant chlorophyll absorption); cultural/urban feature identification
TM 4 0.76 - 0.90 (near IR) identification of plant/vegetation types, health, and biomass content; water body delineation; soil moisture
TM 5 1.55 - 1.75 (short wave IR) sensitive to moisture in soil and vegetation; discriminating snow and cloud-covered areas
TM 6 10.4 - 12.5 (thermal IR) vegetation stress and soil moisture discrimination related to thermal radiation; thermal mapping (urban, water)
TM 7 2.08 - 2.35 (short wave IR) discrimination of mineral and rock types; sensitive to vegetation moisture content

Two images showing forest clearcutting between 1984 and 1991

Data from both the TM and MSS sensors are used for a wide variety of applications, including resource management, mapping, environmental monitoring, and change detection (e.g. monitoring forest clearcutting). The archives of Canadian imagery include over 350,000 scenes of MSS and over 200,000 scenes of TM, managed by the licensed distributor in Canada: RSI Inc. Many more scenes are held by foreign facilities around the world.


SPOTSPOT (Système Pour l'Observation de la Terre) is a series of Earth observation imaging satellites designed and launched by CNES (Centre National d'Études Spatiales) of France, with support from Sweden and Belgium. SPOT-1 was launched in 1986, with successors following every three or four years. All satellites are in sun-synchronous, near-polar orbits at altitudes around 830 km above the Earth, which results in orbit repetition every 26 days. They have equator crossing times around 10:30 AM local solar time. SPOT was designed to be a commercial provider of Earth observation data, and was the first satellite to use along-track, or pushbroom scanning technology.

The SPOT satellites each have twin high resolution visible (HRV) imaging systems, which can be operated independently and simultaneously. Each HRV is capable of sensing either in a high spatial resolution single-channel panchromatic (PLA) mode, or a coarser spatial resolution three-channel multispectral (MLA) mode. Each along-track scanning HRV sensor consists of four linear arrays of detectors: one 6000 element array for the panchromatic mode recording at a spatial resolution of 10 m, and one 3000 element array for each of the three multispectral bands, recording at 20 m spatial resolution. The swath width for both modes is 60 km at nadir. The accompanying table illustrates the spectral characteristics of the two different modes.

HRV Mode Spectral Ranges
Mode/Band Wavelength Range (μm)
Panchromatic (PLA) 0.51 - 0.73 (blue-green-red)
Multispectral (MLA)
Band 1 0.50 - 0.59 (green)
Band 2 0.61 - 0.68 (red)
Band 3 0.79 - 0.89 (near infrared)

Off-nadir viewing

The viewing angle of the sensors can be adjusted to look to either side of the satellite's vertical (nadir) track, allowing off-nadir viewing which increases the satellite's revisit capability. This ability to point the sensors up to 27° from nadir, allows SPOT to view within a 950 km swath and to revisit any location several times per week. As the sensors point away from nadir, the swath varies from 60 to 80 km in width. This not only improves the ability to monitor specific locations and increases the chances of obtaining cloud free scenes, but the off-nadir viewing also provides the capability of acquiring imagery for stereoscopic coverage. By recording the same area from two different angles, the imagery can be viewed and analyzed as a three dimensional model, a technique of tremendous value for terrain interpretation, mapping, and visual terrain simulations.

Adjacent ground swaths

This oblique viewing capability increases the revisit frequency of equatorial regions to three days (seven times during the 26 day orbital cycle). Areas at a latitude of 45º can be imaged more frequently (11 times in 26 days) due to the convergence or orbit paths towards the poles. By pointing both HRV sensors to cover adjacent ground swaths at nadir, a swath of 117 km (3 km overlap between the two swaths) can be imaged. In this mode of operation, either panchromatic or multispectral data can be collected, but not both simultaneously.

Image showing urban mapping

SPOT has a number of benefits over other spaceborne optical sensors. Its fine spatial resolution and pointable sensors are the primary reasons for its popularity. The three-band multispectral data are well suited to displaying as false-colour images and the panchromatic band can also be used to "sharpen" the spatial detail in the multispectral data. SPOT allows applications requiring fine spatial detail (such as urban mapping) to be addressed while retaining the cost and timeliness advantage of satellite data. The potential applications of SPOT data are numerous. Applications requiring frequent monitoring (agriculture, forestry) are well served by the SPOT sensors. The acquisition of stereoscopic imagery from SPOT has played an important role in mapping applications and in the derivation of topographic information (Digital Elevation Models - DEMs) from satellite data.


The Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellite series, combines features from both the Landsat MSS/TM sensors and the SPOT HRV sensor. The third satellite in the series, IRS-1C, launched in December, 1995 has three sensors: a single-channel panchromatic (PAN) high resolution camera, a medium resolution four-channel Linear Imaging Self-scanning Sensor (LISS-III), and a coarse resolution two-channel Wide Field Sensor (WiFS). The accompanying table outlines the specific characteristics of each sensor.

IRS Sensors

Sensor Wavelength Range (μm) Spatial Resolution Swath Width Revisit Period (at equator)
PAN 0.5 - 0.75 5.8 m 70 km 24 days
Green 0.52 - 0.59 23 m 142 km 24 days
Red 0.62 - 0.68 23 m 142 km 24 days
Near IR 0.77 - 0.86 23 m 142 km 24 days
Shortwave IR 1.55 - 1.70 70 m 148 km 24 days
Red 0.62 - 0.68 188 m 774 km 5 days
Near IR 0.77 - 0.86 188 m 774 km 5 days

In addition to its high spatial resolution, the panchromatic sensor can be steered up to 26° across-track, enabling stereoscopic imaging and increased revisit capablilities (as few as five days), similar to SPOT. This high resolution data is useful for urban planning and mapping applications. The four LISS-III multispectral bands are similar to Landsat's TM bands 1 to 4 and are excellent for vegetation discrimination, land-cover mapping, and natural resource planning. The WiFS sensor is similar to NOAA AVHRR bands and the spatial resolution and coverage is useful for regional scale vegetation monitoring.


Although this tutorial concentrates on satellite-borne sensors, it is worth mentioning a couple of Canadian airborne sensors which have been used for various remote sensing applications, as these systems (and others like them) have influenced the design and development of satellite systems. The first is the MEIS-II (Multispectral Electro-optical Imaging Scanner) sensor developed for the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing. Although no longer active, MEIS was the first operational use of pushbroom, or along-track scanning technology in an airborne platform. The sensor collected 8-bit data (256 digital numbers) in eight spectral bands ranging from 0.39 to 1.1 μm, using linear arrays of 1728 detectors per band. The specific wavelength ranges were selectable, allowing different band combinations to be used for different applications. Stereo imaging from a single flight line was also possible, with channels aimed ahead of and behind nadir, supplementing the other nadir facing sensors. Both the stereo mapping and the selectable band capabilities were useful in research and development which was applied to development of other satellite (and airborne) sensor systems.

CASI, the Compact Airborne Spectrographic Imager, is a leader in airborne imaging, being the first commercial imaging spectrometer. This hyperspectral sensor detects a vast array of narrow spectral bands in the visible and infrared wavelengths, using along-track scanning. The spectral range covered by the 288 channels is between 0.4 and 0.9 μm. Each band covers a wavelength range of 0.018 μm. While spatial resolution depends on the altitude of the aircraft, the spectral bands measured and the bandwidths used are all programmable to meet the user's specifications and requirements. Hyperspectral sensors such as this can be important sources of diagnostic information about specific targets' absorption and reflection characteristics, in effect providing a spectral 'fingerprint'. Experimentation with CASI and other airborne imaging spectrometers has helped guide the development of hyperspectral sensor systems for advanced satellite systems.

Did you know?

"...Land, Ho, matey!..."

...the ERTS (Earth Resources Technology Satellite) program was renamed to Landsat just prior to the launch of the second satellite in the series. The Landsat title was used to distinguish the program from another satellite program in the planning stages, called Seasat, intended primarily for oceanographic applications. The first (and only) Seasat satellite was successfully launched in 1978, but unfortunately was only operational for 99 days. Even though the satellite was short-lived and the Seasat program was discontinued, it collected some of the first RADAR images from space which helped heighten the interest in satellite RADAR remote sensing. Today, several RADAR satellites are operational or planned. We will learn more about RADAR and these satellites in the next chapter.

crossword puzzle

...originally the MSS sensor numbering scheme (bands 4, 5, 6, and 7) came from their numerical sequence after the three bands of the RBV (Return Beam Vidicon) sensors. However, due to technical malfunctions with the RBV sensor and the fact that it was dropped from the satellite sensor payload with the launch of Landsat-4, the MSS bands were renumbered from 1 to 4. For the TM sensor, if we look at the wavelength ranges for each of the bands, we see that TM6 and TM7 are out of order in terms of increasing wavelength. This was because the TM7 channel was added as an afterthought late in the original system design process.


Marine Observation Satellites/Sensors

The Earth's oceans cover more than two-thirds of the Earth's surface and play an important role in the global climate system. They also contain an abundance of living organisms and natural resources which are susceptible to pollution and other man-induced hazards. The meteorological and land observations satellites/sensors we discussed in the previous two sections can be used for monitoring the oceans of the planet, but there are other satellite/sensor systems which have been designed specifically for this purpose.

The Nimbus-7 satellite, launched in 1978, carried the first sensor, the Coastal Zone Colour Scanner (CZCS), specifically intended for monitoring the Earth's oceans and water bodies. The primary objective of this sensor was to observe ocean colour and temperature, particularly in coastal zones, with sufficient spatial and spectral resolution to detect pollutants in the upper levels of the ocean and to determine the nature of materials suspended in the water column. The Nimbus satellite was placed in a sun-synchronous, near-polar orbit at an altitude of 955 km. Equator crossing times were local noon for ascending passes and local midnight for descending passes. The repeat cycle of the satellite allowed for global coverage every six days, or every 83 orbits. The CZCS sensor consisted of six spectral bands in the visible, near-IR, and thermal portions of the spectrum each collecting data at a spatial resolution of 825 m at nadir over a 1566 km swath width. The accompanying table outlines the spectral ranges of each band and the primary parameter measured by each.

CZCS Spectral Bands

Channel Wavelength Range (μm) Primary Measured Parameter
1 0.43 - 0.45 Chlorophyll absorption
2 0.51 - 0.53 Chlorophyll absorption
3 0.54 - 0.56 Gelbstoffe (yellow substance)
4 0.66 - 0.68 Chlorophyll concentration
5 0.70 - 0.80 Surface vegetation
6 10.5 - 12.50 Surface temperature

Image showing phytoplankton concentrationAs can be seen from the table, the first four bands of the CZCS sensor are very narrow. They were optimized to allow detailed discrimination of differences in water reflectance due to phytoplankton concentrations and other suspended particulates in the water. In addition to detecting surface vegetation on the water, band 5 was used to discriminate water from land prior to processing the other bands of information. The CZCS sensor ceased operation in 1986.


The first Marine Observation Satellite (MOS-1) was launched by Japan in February, 1987 and was followed by its successor, MOS-1b, in February of 1990. These satellites carry three different sensors: a four-channel Multispectral Electronic Self-Scanning Radiometer (MESSR), a four-channel Visible and Thermal Infrared Radiometer (VTIR), and a two-channel Microwave Scanning Radiometer (MSR), in the microwave portion of the spectrum. The characteristics of the two sensors in the visible/infrared are described in the accompanying table.

MOS Visible/Infrared Instruments

Sensor Wavelength Ranges (μm) Spatial Resolution Swath Width
MESSR 0.51 - 0.59 50 m 100 km
  0.61 - 0.69 50 m 100 km
  0.72 - 0.80 50 m 100 km
  0.80 - 1.10 50 m 100 km
VTIR 0.50 - 0.70 900 m 1500 km
  6.0 - 7.0 2700 m 1500 km
  10.5 - 11.5 2700 m 1500 km
  11.5 - 12.5 2700 m 1500 km

The MESSR bands are quite similar in spectral range to the Landsat MSS sensor and are thus useful for land applications in addition to observations of marine environments. The MOS systems orbit at altitudes around 900 km and have revisit periods of 17 days.


The SeaWiFS (Sea-viewing Wide-Field-of View Sensor) on board the SeaStar spacecraft is an advanced sensor designed for ocean monitoring. It consists of eight spectral bands of very narrow wavelength ranges (see accompanying table) tailored for very specific detection and monitoring of various ocean phenomena including: ocean primary production and phytoplankton processes, ocean influences on climate processes (heat storage and aerosol formation), and monitoring of the cycles of carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen. The orbit altitude is 705 km with a local equatorial crossing time of 12 PM. Two combinations of spatial resolution and swath width are available for each band: a higher resolution mode of 1.1 km (at nadir) over a swath of 2800 km, and a lower resolution mode of 4.5 km (at nadir) over a swath of 1500 km.

SeaWiFS Spectral Bands

Channel Wavelength Ranges (μm)
1 0.402 - 0.422
2 0.433 - 0.453
3 0.480 - 0.500
4 0.500 - 0.520
5 0.545 - 0.565
6 0.660 - 0.680
7 0.745 - 0.785
8 0.845 - 0.885

These ocean-observing satellite systems are important for global and regional scale monitoring of ocean pollution and health, and assist scientists in understanding the influence and impact of the oceans on the global climate system.


Other Sensors

The three previous sections provide a representative overview of specific systems available for remote sensing in the (predominantly) optical portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. However, there are many other types of less common sensors which are used for remote sensing purposes. We briefly touch on a few of these other types of sensors. The information is not considered comprehensive but serves as an introduction to alternative imagery sources and imaging concepts.


Although coarser in spatial resolution than traditional photography or digital imaging, video cameras provide a useful means of acquiring timely and inexpensive data and vocally annotated imagery. Applications with these requirements include natural disaster management, (fires, flooding), crop and disease assessment, environmental hazard control, and police surveillance. Cameras used for video recording measure radiation in the visible, near infrared, and sometimes mid-infrared portions of the EM spectrum. The image data are recorded onto cassette, and can be viewed immediately.


Forward Looking InfraRed (FLIR) systems operate in a similar manner to across-track thermal imaging sensors, but provide an oblique rather than nadir perspective of the Earth´s surface. Typically positioned on aircraft or helicopters, and imaging the area ahead of the platform, FLIR systems provide relatively high spatial resolution imaging that can be used for military applications, search and rescue operations, law enforcement, and forest fire monitoring.

Laser fluorosensor

Some targets fluoresce, or emit energy, upon receiving incident energy. This is not a simple reflection of the incident radiation, but rather an absorption of the initial energy, excitation of the molecular components of the target materials, and emission of longer wavelength radiation which is then measured by the sensor. Laser fluorosensors illuminate the target with a specific wavelength of radiation and are capable of detecting multiple wavelengths of fluoresced radiation. This technology has been proven for ocean applications, such as chlorophyll mapping, and pollutant detection, particularly for naturally occurring and accidental oil slicks.


Lidar is an acronym for LIght Detection And Ranging, an active imaging technology very similar to RADAR (see next paragraph). Pulses of laser light are emitted from the sensor and energy reflected from a target is detected. The time required for the energy to reach the target and return to the sensor determines the distance between the two. Lidar is used effectively for measuring heights of features, such as forest canopy height relative to the ground surface, and water depth relative to the water surface (laser profilometer). Lidar is also used in atmospheric studies to examine the particle content of various layers of the Earth´s atmosphere and acquire air density readings and monitor air currents.


RADAR stands for RAdio Detection And Ranging. RADAR systems are active sensors which provide their own source of electromagnetic energy. Active radar sensors, whether airborne or spaceborne, emit microwave radiation in a series of pulses from an antenna, looking obliquely at the surface perpendicular to the direction of motion. When the energy reaches the target, some of the energy is reflected back towards the sensor. This backscattered microwave radiation is detected, measured, and timed. The time required for the energy to travel to the target and return back to the sensor determines the distance or range to the target. By recording the range and magnitude of the energy reflected from all targets as the system passes by, a two-dimensional image of the surface can be produced. Because RADAR provides its own energy source, images can be acquired day or night. Also, microwave energy is able to penetrate through clouds and most rain, making it an all-weather sensor. Because of the unique characteristics and applications of microwave remote sensing, Chapter 3 covers this topic in detail, concentrating on RADAR remote sensing.


Data Reception, Transmission, and Processing

Data obtained during airborne remote sensing missions can be retrieved once the aircraft lands. It can then be processed and delivered to the end user. However, data acquired from satellite platforms need to be electronically transmitted to Earth, since the satellite continues to stay in orbit during its operational lifetime. The technologies designed to accomplish this can also be used by an aerial platform if the data are urgently needed on the surface.

Transmitting data

There are three main options for transmitting data acquired by satellites to the surface. The data can be directly transmitted to Earth if a Ground Receiving Station (GRS) is in the line of sight of the satellite (A). If this is not the case, the data can be recorded on board the satellite (B) for transmission to a GRS at a later time. Data can also be relayed to the GRS through the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) (C), which consists of a series of communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit. The data are transmitted from one satellite to another until they reach the appropriate GRS.

In Canada, CCRS operates two ground receiving stations - one at Cantley, Québec (GSS), just outside of Ottawa, and another one at Prince Albert, Saskatchewan (PASS). The combined coverage circles for these Canadian ground stations enable the potential for reception of real-time or recorded data from satellites passing over almost any part of Canada's land mass, and much of the continental United States as well. Other ground stations have been set up around the world to capture data from a variety of satellites.

Ground receiving stations circles

The data are received at the GRS in a raw digital format. They may then, if required, be processed to correct systematic, geometric and atmospheric distortions to the imagery, and be translated into a standardized format. The data are written to some form of storage medium such as tape, disk or CD. The data are typically archived at most receiving and processing stations, and full libraries of data are managed by government agencies as well as commercial companies responsible for each sensor's archives.

For many sensors it is possible to provide customers with quick-turnaround imagery when they need data as quickly as possible after it is collected. Near real-time processing systems are used to produce low resolution imagery in hard copy or soft copy (digital) format within hours of data acquisition. Such imagery can then be faxed or transmitted digitally to end users. One application of this type of fast data processing is to provide imagery to ships sailing in the Arctic, as it allows them to assess current ice conditions quickly in order to make navigation decisions about the easiest/safest routes through the ice. Real-time processing of imagery in airborne systems has been used, for example, to pass thermal infrared imagery to forest fire fighters right at the scene.

Low resolution quick-look imagery is used to preview archived imagery prior to purchase. The spatial and radiometric quality of these types of data products is degraded, but they are useful for ensuring that the overall quality, coverage and cloud cover of the data is appropriate.

Did you know?

"...I'm receiving you loud and clear..."

ground receiving stations

... Canada's ground receiving stations have been in operation since 1972 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and 1985 in Gatineau, Quebec. These two stations receive and process image data from several different satellites (NOAA, Landsat, RADARSAT, J-ERS, MOS, SPOT, and ERS) from five different countries or group of countries (USA, Canada, Japan, France, and Europe).