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Remote Sensors


Remote sensing instruments are of two primary types - active and passive. Active sensors, provide their own source of energy to illuminate the objects they observe. An active sensor emits radiation in the direction of the target to be investigated. The sensor then detects and measures the radiation that is reflected or backscattered from the target. Passive sensors, on the other hand, detect natural energy (radiation) that is emitted or reflected by the object or scene being observed. Reflected sunlight is the most common source of radiation measured by passive sensors.

Active Sensors

The majority of active sensors operate in the microwave portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, which makes them able to penetrate the atmosphere under most conditions. An active technique views the target from either end of a baseline of known length. The change in apparent view direction (parallax) is related to the absolute distance between the instrument and target.

  • Laser altimeter—An instrument that uses a lidar to measure the height of the platform (spacecraft or aircraft) above the surface. The height of the platform with respect to the mean Earth’s surface is used to determine the topography of the underlying surface.
  • Lidar—A light detection and ranging sensor that uses a laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) radar to transmit a light pulse and a receiver with sensitive detectors to measure the backscattered or reflected light. Distance to the object is determined by recording the time between transmitted and backscattered pulses and by using the speed of light to calculate the distance traveled.
  • Radar—An active radio detection and ranging sensor that provides its own source of electromagnetic energy. An active radar sensor, whether airborne or spaceborne, emits microwave radiation in a series of pulses from an antenna. When the energy reaches the target, some of the energy is reflected back toward 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.
  • Ranging Instrument—A device that measures the distance between the instrument and a target object. Radars and altimeters work by determining the time a transmitted pulse (microwaves or light) takes to reflect from a target and return to the instrument. Another technique employs identical microwave instruments on a pair of platforms. Signals are transmitted from each instrument to the other, with the distance between the two determined from the difference between the received signal phase and transmitted (reference) phase. These are examples of active techniques. An active technique views the target from either end of a baseline of known length. The change in apparent view direction (parallax) is related to the absolute distance between the instrument and target.
  • Scatterometer—A high-frequency microwave radar designed specifically to measure backscattered radiation. Over ocean surfaces, measurements of backscattered radiation in the microwave spectral region can be used to derive maps of surface wind speed and direction.
  • Sounder—An instrument that measures vertical distribution of precipitation and other atmospheric characteristics such as temperature, humidity, and cloud composition.

Passive Sensors

Passive sensors include different types of radiometers and spectrometers. Most passive systems used in remote sensing applications operate in the visible, infrared, thermal infrared, and microwave portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Passive remote sensors include the following:

  • Accelerometer—An instrument that measures acceleration (change in velocity per unit time). There are two general types of accelerometers. One measures translational accelerations (changes in linear motions in one or more dimensions), and the other measures angular accelerations (changes in rotation rate per unit time).
  • Hyperspectral radiometer—An advanced multispectral sensor that detects hundreds of very narrow spectral bands throughout the visible, near-infrared, and mid-infrared portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. This sensor’s very high spectral resolution facilitates fine discrimination between different targets based on their spectral response in each of the narrow bands.
  • Imaging radiometer—A radiometer that has a scanning capability to provide a two-dimensional array of pixels from which an image may be produced. Scanning can be performed mechanically or electronically by using an array of detectors.
  • Radiometer—An instrument that quantitatively measures the intensity of electromagnetic radiation in some bands within the spectrum. Usually, a radiometer is further identified by the portion of the spectrum it covers; for example, visible, infrared, or microwave.
  • Sounder—An instrument that measures vertical distributions of atmospheric parameters such as temperature, pressure, and composition from multispectral information.
  • Spectrometer—A device that is designed to detect, measure, and analyze the spectral content of incident electromagnetic radiation. Conventional imaging spectrometers use gratings or prisms to disperse the radiation for spectral discrimination.
  • Spectroradiometer—A radiometer that measures the intensity of radiation in multiple wavelength bands (i.e., multispectral). Many times the bands are of high-spectral resolution, designed for remotely sensing specific geophysical parameters

The following tables list and describe many of the active and passive sensors whose data are supported by EOSDIS. Some of these sensors may overlap categories. They are listed by current, future, and historic missions.

Last Updated: Jun 27, 2019 at 3:16 PM EDT