Remotely Sensing Our Planet

  • Released Wednesday, August 16, 2017
View full credits

The term "remote sensing” is 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.

Remote sensing is used in numerous fields, including geography, land surveying and most Earth Science disciplines; it also has military, intelligence, commercial, economic, planning, and humanitarian applications. This diagram reveals the variety of remote sensing platforms used today—offering a multi-scale, multi-resolution view of our planet. 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.

To access and download NASA Earth-observing data, visit


Please give credit for this item to:
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Release date

This page was originally published on Wednesday, August 16, 2017.
This page was last updated on Wednesday, November 15, 2023 at 12:38 AM EST.