Satellite Technology

Sentinel-1B. Image: ESA–Manuel Pedoussaut. Landsat 8. Image: NASA. Swarm Earth Explorer constellation. Image: ESA-P. Carril.

Among the services that satellites can provide for disaster risk management and emergency response are weather forecasting, remote sensing, geo-positioning, navigation, television and telecommunication. Instruments onboard satellites circling the Earth are designed to cover specific wavelength ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum in order to capture images, atmospheric sounding, satellite communication, geo-positioning and navigation.

Satellites are circling Earth in different orbits depending on the type of application or instrument onboard: A satellite in a geostationary orbit circles the Earth above the equator (0° latitude) synchronously to the Earth's rotation. Its apparently fixed position above a point on the equator at an altitude of more than 36,000 km makes it suitable for communications and regional climate observation of that specific area, with high temporal but low spatial resolution.

Earth observation satellites and satellites for meteorological purposes are located in low Earth orbit at an altitude of typically about 500-800 km and near polar inclination. Due to their orbit, these satellites provide global coverage with comparatively lower temporal, but medium to very high spatial resolution. Due to the high costs of space transportation, constellations of communication or navigation satellites are also placed in Low Earth Orbit.

Earth Observation satellites use either optical or radar sensors to capture images of Earth: Optical sensors for Earth observation are designed to deliver images in either panchromatic spectral format or multispectral format. Panchromatic refers to images in black and white that are reflected from Earth's surface exposed to all visible light. Multispectral images usually include four bands of the electromagnetic spectrum: blue, green, red and near-infrared.

Radar sensors for Earth observation are designed to operate in the microwave range.

Overview on satellite missions and instruments

Hazard types:
Launch Date: Dec 1999
Operator: Eurimage, NASA
Hazard types:
Launch Date: Sep 1999
Operator: Eurimage, Geoeye, Satellite Imaging Corporation
Hazard types:
Launch Date: Jun 1999
Operator: NASA
Hazard types:
Launch Date: May 1999
Operator: NOAA
Hazard types: Drought, Glacial Lake Outburst, Harmful Algal Bloom, Landslide, Earthquake, Extreme Temperature, Flood, Forest Fire, Mass Movement, Tsunami, Volcanic Eruption
Applications: Extending and improving upon the long-term record of medium-resolution multispectral imagery of the Earth’s continental surfaces provided by earlier Landsat satellites
Launch Date: Apr 1999
Operator: NASA, NOAA, USGS
Hazard types: Drought, Extreme Temperature, Flood, Forest Fire, Severe Storm, Volcanic Eruption
Applications: Meteorology, agriculture and forestry, environmental monitoring, climatology, physical oceanography, volcanic eruption monitoring, ice and snow cover, total ozone studies, space environment, solar flux analysis, search and rescue
Launch Date: May 1998
Operator: NOAA, NASA
Hazard types: Drought, Glacial Lake Outburst, Landslide, Earthquake, Flood, Forest Fire, Mass Movement, Pollution, Tsunami, Volcanic Eruption
Applications: Earth observation
Launch Date: Mar 1998
Operator: Spot Image, ASTRIUM
Hazard types: Biological
Launch Date: Mar 1998
Operator: Spot Image
Hazard types: Meteorological, Severe Storm
Launch Date: Nov 1997
Operator: JAXA


For additional information, please visit the following external resources:

  • European Space Agency's (ESA) satellite mission database on the EOPortal database (link)
  • Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) and ESA database (link)

External tutorials on satellite technologies and Earth observation

Below you will find links to external handbooks, guides and tutorials on satellite technology.

Guides: Earth observation applications

  • CEOS Earth Observation Handbook: Satellite Earth Observations in Support of Disaster Risk Reduction (link)
  • CEOS Earth Observation Handbook: Satellite Earth Observations in Support of Climate Information Challenges (link)
  • CEOS Earth Observation Handbook: Satellite Earth Observations in Support of the Sustainable Development Goals (link)

Guides: Introduction to remote sensing

  • Introduction to radar remote sensing of the remote sensing education initiative (SAREDU) of DLR (link)
  • Tutorial on fundamentals of remote sensing of CNRS (link)
  • Tutorial on radar polarimetry (CNRS) (link)
  • Tutorial on satellite data reception (link)
  • Image interpretation quiz (link)

Guides: Didactic material on satellite technology for children and schools

  • EDUSPACE of ESA aims to provide secondary school students and teachers with a learning and teaching tool. It is meant to be an entry point for space image data, and, in particular, to a widespread visibility of Earth observation applications for education and training. (link)
  • Watching over our Planet from Space - A kit for kids (CNRS) (link)
  • Remote Sensing in schools (University of Bonn and DLR) (link)
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