Educator Features

What is Remote Sensing?
06.10.04
Image of a camera
The technology of modern remote sensing began with the invention of the camera more than 150 years ago. Although the first, rather primitive photographs were taken as "stills" on the ground, the idea and practice of looking down at the Earth's surface emerged in the 1840s when pictures were taken from cameras secured to tethered balloons for purposes of topographic mapping. Perhaps the most novel platform at the end of the last century is the famed pigeon fleet that operated as a novelty in Europe.

Image to left: Cameras were first used for topographic mapping. Credit: NASA

By the first World War, cameras mounted on airplanes provided aerial views of fairly large surface areas that proved invaluable in military reconnaissance. From then until the early 1960s, the aerial photograph remained the single standard tool for depicting the surface from a vertical or oblique perspective.

Picture of a V2 rocket during launch
Satellite remote sensing can be traced to the early days of the space age (both Russian and American programs) and actually began as a dual approach to imaging surfaces using several types of sensors from spacecraft. In 1946, V-2 rockets acquired from Germany after World War II were launched to high altitudes from White Sands, New Mexico. These rockets, while never attaining orbit, contained automated still or movie cameras that took pictures as the vehicle ascended. Then, with the emergence of the space program in the 1960s, Earth-orbiting cosmonauts and astronauts acted much like tourists by taking photos out the window of their spacecraft.

Image to right: V-2 rockets carried cameras that took pictures as the vehicles launched. Credit: NASA

The term "remote sensing," first used in the United States in the 1950s by Ms. Evelyn Pruitt of the U.S. Office of Naval Research, is now commonly used to describe the science -- and art -- of identifying, observing and measuring an object without coming into direct contact with it. This process involves the detection and measurement of radiation of different wavelengths reflected or emitted from distant objects or materials, by which they may be identified and categorized by class/type, substance and spatial distribution.

For more information about remote sensing please visit:
http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Library/RemoteSensing/remote.

Published by Earth Observatory