Remote Sensing Methods

There are two types of remote sensing instruments—passive and active. Passive instruments detect natural energy that is reflected or emitted from the observed scene. Passive instruments sense only radiation emitted by the object being viewed or reflected by the object from a source other than the instrument. Reflected sunlight is the most common external source of radiation sensed by passive instruments. Scientists use a variety of passive remote sensors.


An instrument that quantitatively measures the intensity of electromagnetic radiation in some band of wavelengths in the spectrum. Usually a radiometer is further identified by the portion of the spectrum it covers; for example, visible, infrared, or microwave.

Imaging Radiometer

A radiometer that includes a scanning capability to provide a two-dimensional array of pixels from which an image may be produced is called an imaging radiometer. Scanning can be performed mechanically or electronically by using an array of detectors.


A device designed to detect, measure, and analyze the spectral content of the incident electromagnetic radiation is called a spectrometer. Conventional, imaging spectrometers use gratings or prisms to disperse the radiation for spectral discrimination.


A radiometer that can measure the intensity of radiation in multiple wavelength bands (i.e., multispectral). Oftentimes the bands are of a high spectral resolution—designed for the remote sensing of specific parameters such as sea surface temperature, cloud characteristics, ocean color, vegetation, trace chemical species in the atmosphere, etc.

Active instruments provide their own energy (electromagnetic radiation) to illuminate the object or scene they observe. They send a pulse of energy from the sensor to the object and then receive the radiation that is reflected or backscattered from that object. Scientists use many different types of active remote sensors.

Radar (Radio Detection and Ranging)

A radar uses a transmitter operating at either radio or microwave frequencies to emit electromagnetic radiation and a directional antenna or receiver to measure the time of arrival of reflected or backscattred pulses of radiation from distant objects. Distance to the object can be determined since electromagnetic radiation propagates at the speed of light.


A scatterometer is 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.

Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging)

A lidar uses a laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) 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 the transmitted and backscattered pulses and using the speed of light to calculate the distance traveled. Lidars can determine atmospheric profiles of aerosols, clouds, and other constituents of the atmosphere.

Laser Altimeter

A laser altimeter uses a lidar (see above) to measure the height of the instrument platform above the surface. By independently knowing the height of the platform with respect to the mean Earth’s surface, the topography of the underlying surface can be determined.

Source: NASA

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