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University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Remote Sensing Glossary

Reference Information for Virtual Nebraska

Terms, Definitions and Concepts



The process of obtaining a sequence of discrete digital values from a continuous sequence of analog data.


See synthetic aperture radar.


Search and Rescue Tracking System carried on NOAA polar-orbiting satellites that receives emergency signals from persons in distress. The satellites transmit these signals to ground receiving stations in the U.S. and overseas. Signals are forwarded to the nearest rescue coordination center which computes the location from which the emergency signals came and provides the coordinates of the emergency site to a rescue team. See Search and Rescue


A free-flying object that orbits the Earth, another planet, or the sun.

satellite orbital elements

See Keplerian Elements.

satellite positioning

A procedure by which satellites are used to locate precise objects or particular points on Earth.

satellite revolution

The time from one perigee (the point of an elliptical orbit path where a satellite is closest to Earth) to the next.


A system that optically scans its detector(s) across a scene and records or stores the data in a two-dimensional format to form an image.

scanning radiometer

An imaging system consisting of lenses, moving mirrors, and solid-state image sensors used to obtain observations of the Earth and its atmosphere. Scanning radiometers, which are the sole imaging systems on all current operational weather satellites, have far better long-term performance than the vidicon TV camera tubes used with earlier spacecraft.


The process by which electromagnetic radiation interacts with and is redirected by the molecules of the atmosphere, ocean, or land surface. The term is frequently applied to the interaction of the atmosphere on sunlight, which causes the sky to appear blue (since light near the blue end of the spectrum is scattered much more than light near the red end).

screaming eagles

Cloud pattern so named because some observers maintain they can see the head of an eagle facing west in these cloud patterns. The pattern is similar to a comma, only the pattern is disorganized and not solid. Weather associated with screaming eagles consists of rain showers and gusty surface winds up to about 25 knots. The eagles can intensify and enlarge when moving into areas east of troughs; in that case, intense thunderstorms can develop. Screaming eagles are common in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the equator, and are uncommon in the western Atlantic.

sea breeze

Local coastal wind that blows from the ocean to land. Sea breezes usually occur during the day, because the heating differences of land and sea cause pressure differences. Cooler, heavier air from the sea moves in to replace rising warm air on the coastline. See land breeze.

sea level

The datum against which land elevation and sea depth are measured. Mean sea level is the average of high and low tides.

Search and Rescue

International satellite-aided search and rescue project. COSPAS/SARSAT satellites monitor the entire surface of the Earth, and transmit distress signals to special ground receiving stations. The receiving stations compute the location of the signal, and notify the nearest rescue coordination center. Satellite search has cut recovery time from days to hours, and has aided downed airplanes, capsized boats, and persons in other emergencies.


See Space Environment Monitor, TIROS

semi-major axis (aka a)

One of the six Keplerian elements, it indicates the size of an orbit. The semi-major axis is one-half of the longest diameter of an orbital ellipse, e.g., one-half of the distance between the apogee and perigee of an Earth orbit. (The semi-major axis is related to the orbital period and mean motion by Kepler's third law. See Kepler's three laws of motion.) See Keplerian elements for diagram.


Device that produces an output (usually electrical) in response to stimulus such as incident radiation. Sensors aboard satellites obtain information about features and objects on Earth by detecting radiation reflected or emitted in different bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. Analyzing the transmitted data provides valuable scientific information about Earth.

Weather satellites commonly carry radiometers, which measure radiation from snow, ice, clouds, and bodies of water. Spaceborne radars are used for Earth observations, bouncing radar waves off land and ocean surfaces to study sea-surface conditions, ice thickness, and land surface features. A wind scatterometer is a special type of radar designed to measure ocean surface winds indirectly by bouncing signals off the water and measuring them from various angles. Infrared (IR) detectors measure heat generated by Earth features in the IR band of the spectrum.

Photographic reconnaissance sensors in their simplest form are large telescope-camera systems used to view objects on Earth's surface. The bigger the lens, the smaller the object that can be detected. Camera-telescope systems now incorporate all sorts of sophisticated electronics to produce better images, but even these systems need cloudless skies, excellent lighting, and good color contrast between objects and their surroundings to detect objects the size of a basketball. Some of the satellites produce film images that must be returned to Earth, but a more convenient method is to record the image as a series of digital code numbers, then reconstruct the image from the electronic code using a computer at a ground station.

sensor calibration

The relationship between input and output for a given measurement.


The process of providing storage for a substance. For example, plants--through photosynthesis--transform carbon dioxide in the air into organic matter, which either stays in the plants or is stored in the soils. The plants are a sink for carbon dioxide.


The first U.S. space station, launched unmanned in May 1973 and soon after occupied in succession by three crews through November 1973.


See Satellite Operations Control Center.


The programs, data, or routines used by a computer, distinguished from the physical components (e.g., hardware).

solar backscatter ultraviolet radiometer (SBUV)

Instrument that measures the vertical distribution and total ozone in the Earth's atmosphere. Data is used for the continuous monitoring of ozone distribution to estimate long-term trends. SBUV instruments are flown on NOAA polar-orbiting satellites.

solar constant

Aka total solar irradiance. The constant expressing the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth from the sun, approximately 1370 watts per square meter. It is not, in fact, truly constant and variations are detectable.

solar cycle

Eleven-year cycle of sunspots and solar flares that affects other solar indexes such as the solar output of ultraviolet radiation and the solar wind. The Earth's magnetic field, temperature, and ozone levels are affected by this cycle.

solar radiation

Energy received from the sun is solar radiation. The energy comes in many forms, such as visible light (that which we can see with our eyes). Other forms of radiation include radio waves, heat (infrared), ultraviolet waves, and x-rays. These forms are categorized within the electromagnetic spectrum.

solar wind

A continuous plasma stream expanding into interplanetary space from the sun's corona. The solar wind is present continuously in interplanetary space. After escaping from the gravitational field of the sun, this gas flows outward at a typical speed of 400 km per second to distances known to be beyond the orbit of Pluto. Besides affecting Earth's weather, solar activity gives rise to a dramatic visual phenomena in our atmosphere. The streams of charged particles from the Sun interact the Earth's magnetic field like a generator to create current systems with electric potentials of as much as 100,000 volts. Charged electrons are energized by this process, sent along the magnetic field lines towards Earth's upper atmosphere, excite the gases present in the upper atmosphere and cause them to emit light which we call the auroras. The auroras are the northern (aurora borealis) and southern (aurora Australis) lights.


A special kind of radiometer that measures changes in atmospheric temperature with height, as well as the content of various chemical species in the atmosphere at various levels. The High Resolution Infrared Radiation Sounder (HIRS), found on NOAA polar-orbiting satellites, is a passive instrument. See passive system.

Space Environment Monitor (SEM)

Instrument that measures the condition of the Earth's magnetic field and the solar activity and radiation around the spacecraft, and transmits these data to a central processing facility. NOAA polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites both carry SEMs. See TIROS.


A manned laboratory module built by the European Space Agency (ESA) that accommodates dozens of experiments on each flight, mainly in the categories of materials science and life science.

NASA electronic database for educators, with information stored on a computer at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Via computer, educators communicate with NASA education specialists and access the following menus: current NASA news, aeronautics research, U.S. Space Program historical information, aerospace research in the 1980s and beyond, overviews of NASA and its Centers, NASA educational services, classroom materials, and space program spin-offs. The computer access number is 205-895-0028, the data word format is 8 data bits, no parity, and 1 stop bit--300, 1200, or 2400 baud modem required. Callers with Internet access may reach NASA Spacelink at:

space physics

Scientific study of magnetic and electric phenomena that occur in outer space, in the upper atmosphere of the planets, and on the sun.

Space Shuttle

NASA's manned, recoverable spacecraft designed to be used as a launch vehicle for Earth-orbiting experiments and as a short-term research platform.

spectral band

A finite segment of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum.

  1. The series of colored bands diffracted and arranged in the order of their respective wave lengths by the passage of white light through a prism or other diffracting medium and shading continuously from red (produced by the longest visible wave) to violet (produced by the shortest visible wave).
  2. Any of various arrangements of colored bands or lines, together with invisible components at both ends of the spectrum, similarly formed by light from incandescent gases or other sources of radiant energy, which can be studied by a spectrograph.
  3. In radio, the range of wave lengths of radio waves, from 3 centimeters to 30,000 meters, or of frequencies of radio waves, from 10 to 10,000,000 kilocycles. Also radio spectrum.
  4. The entire range of radiant energies. See electromagnetic spectrum.

Systeme Pour l'Observation de la Terre. French, polar-orbiting Earth observation satellite(s) with ground resolution of 10 meters. SPOT images are available commercially and are intended for such purposes as environmental research and monitoring, ecology management, and for use by the media, environmentalists, legislators, etc.

SPOT Image

Company that markets data gathered by the SPOT satellite worldwide.


Region of the atmosphere between the troposphere and mesosphere, having a lower boundary of approximately 8 km at the poles to 15 km at the equator and an upper boundary of approximately 50 km. Depending upon latitude and season, the temperature in the lower stratosphere can increase, be isothermal, or even decrease with altitude, but the temperature in the upper stratosphere generally increases with height due to absorption of solar radiation by ozone.

subsatellite point

Point where a straight line drawn from a satellite to the center of the Earth intersects the Earth's surface.

subsatellite track

See ground track.

  1. A subunit of either the physical climate system (e.g., ocean dynamics) or the biogeochemical cycles (e.g., terrestrial ecosystems).
  2. A subunit of a spacecraft, e.g., the telemetry subsystem, the power subsystem, the sensor subsystem, etc.

The closest star to Earth (149,599,000 km away on average). The sun dwarfs the other bodies in the solar system, representing approximately 99.86 percent of all the mass in the solar system. One hundred and nine Earths would be required to fit across the Sun's disk, its interior could hold over 1.3 million Earths.

The source of the Sun's energy is the nuclear reactions that occur in its core. There, at temperatures of 15 million degrees Celsius (27 million degrees Fahrenheit) hydrogen atom nuclei, called protons, are fused and become helium atom nuclei. The energy produced through fusion at the core moves outward, first in the form of electromagnetic radiation called photons. Next, energy moves upward in photon heated solar gas--this type of energy transport is called convection. Convective motions within the solar interior generate magnetic fields that emerge at the surface as sunspots and loops of hot gas called prominences. Most solar energy finally escapes from a thin layer of the Sun's atmosphere called the photosphere--the part of the Sun observable to the naked eye.

The sun appears to have been active for 4.6 billion years and has enough fuel for another 5 billion years or so. At the end of its life, the Sun will start to fuse helium into heavier elements and begin to swell up, ultimately growing so large that it will swallow Earth. After a billion years as a "red giant," it will suddenly collapse into a "white dwarf." It may take a trillion years to cool off completely.


Describes the orbit of a satellite that provides consistent lighting of the Earth-scan view. The satellite passes the equator and each latitude at the same time each day. For example, a satellite's sun-synchronous orbit might cross the equator twelve times a day, each time at 3:00 p.m. local time. The orbital plane of a sun-synchronous orbit must also precess (rotate) approximately one degree each day, eastward, to keep pace with the Earth's revolution around the sun.

survey mode

Refers to observational emphasis upon frequent global coverage, usually with restricted spatial and spectral resolution, aimed at developing a consistent, long-term data product for later interpretation.


The area observed by a satellite as it orbits the Earth.

synoptic chart

Chart showing meteorological conditions over a region at a given time; weather map.

synoptic view

The ability to see large areas at the same time.

synthetic aperture radar (SAR)

A high-resolution ground-mapping technique that effectively synthesizes a large receiving antenna by processing the phase of the reflected radar return. The along-track resolution is obtained by timing the radar return (time-gating) as for ordinary radar. The cross-track (azimuthal) resolution is obtained by processing the Doppler phase of the radar return. The cross-track "dimension" of the antenna is a function of the length of time over which the Doppler phase is collected. See Doppler effect.