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. Source: NASA (http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Glossary)