This Tools Helps You Figure Out Which Satellite Bands to Use for Remote Sensing

Caitlin Dempsey

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There are a slew of satellite imagery options, each offering a range of bands which can be used to measure soil, water, vegetation, and more.  Remote sensing technology, utilized by satellites and airborne sensors, captures images of the Earth in multiple wavelengths of light. Using remote sensing of satellite imagery, scientists and researchers identify and classify materials on the Earth’s surface or in the atmosphere by analyzing how these materials interact with light.

Features on Earth such as healthy vegetation, dried out vegetation, water, soil, or buildings—absorb and reflect sunlight at different wavelengths. These characteristics give each of these features a unique spectral signature or profile.

Spectral profiles are essentially graphs that display how different materials reflect or emit radiation across various wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, ranging from visible light to infrared and beyond.

What is the Spectral Characteristics Viewer?

The USGS offers the Spectral Characteristics Viewer which lets users view how different Earth observation satellite instruments can be used for their remote sensing needs. The Spectral Characteristics Viewer is a tool designed for exploring the spectral profiles of various materials, objects, and features acquired by satellite imagery.


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Users can select different bands from various earth observation satellite instruments to see the different Relative Spectral Response (RSR) which is the measurement of the intensity of the wavelengths (colors) of light.  RSRs describe how sensitive a sensor is to different wavelengths of light. This is an important metric for understanding a sensor’s ability to detect and measure electromagnetic radiation within specific bands of the spectrum.

Therefore, picking the right satellite-based sensors is important if the researcher is attempting to map out specific features. The Spectra option lets users pick the type of matter to see the spectral response of minerals, vegetation, water or coating-rocks.

Users can compare up to two RSRs and six spectra (the USGS Spectroscopy Laboratory and the ECOSTRESS Spectral Library are the two target library options) .

The tool was recently updated as part of the USGS EROS EROS CalVal Center of Excellence (ECCOE) project.

Some of the recent enhancements to the tool include: improved user interfaces and analysis functions, such as better control over display settings, interactive highlighting of sensor RSRs, and target spectra upon mouseover on the legend.

For example. users can now click on the zoom buttons to see more detail in one part of the graph. A grayed out area in the smaller graph underneath the main graph lets the user see where along the graph they are zoomed in to. Click on any of the sensor RSR or target spectra legend items highlights that part of the graph in the viewer.

What satellite bands are available for comparison?

The tool lets users view RSR for instruments on other Earth observation satellites in addition to Landsat ones:

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This article was originally written on March 27, 2019 and has since been updated.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.