Category Archives: Remote Sensing

Remote Sensing Shows the Extent of Flooding from Hurricane Harvey and Other Large Flooding Events

Dartmouth Flood Observatory, at the University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, integrates international satellite data to develop a worldwide view of surface water issues, and can provide regional maps that show the extent of flooding in areas of interest. Data from many satellite sources are used, including NASA’s MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectrometer) and Landsat, European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel 1, ASI (Agenzia Spaziale Italiana) Cosmos-SkyMed, and Canadian Space Agency’s Radarsat 2.

The Dartmouth Flood Observatory homepage is here:

The world view of large flooding events as of 26 August 2017 is shown in the graphic.

Source: Dartmouth Flood Observatory

The following 31 August 2017 maps show the areas in Texas and Louisiana that were flooded by Hurricane Harvey also known as DFO flood event 4510). Red represents flooded areas, blue represents normal water extent, and dark grey represents urban areas.

Area mapSource: Dartmouth Flood Observatory

Here’s the link to these detailed flooding maps for Hurricane Harvey:

This webpage also provides links to other information sources related to Hurricane Harvey.

The Dartmouth Flood Observatory maintains an archive of large flood events from 1985 to present. This archive is accessible online at the following link:

Dartmouth Flood Observatory is a member of the Global Flood Partnership (GFP), which describes itself as, “a cooperation framework between scientific organizations and flood disaster managers worldwide to develop flood observational and modeling infrastructure, leveraging on existing initiatives for better predicting and managing flood disaster impacts and flood risk globally.” For more information on the Global Flood Partnership, visit their homepage and portal at the following links:

Lidar Remote Sensing Helps Archaeologists Uncover Lost City and Temple Complexes in Cambodia

In Cambodia, remote sensing is proving to be of great value for looking beneath a thick jungle canopy and detecting signs of ancient civilizations, including temples and other structures, villages, roads, and hydraulic engineering systems for water management. Building on a long history of archaeological research in the region, the Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative (CALI) has become a leader in applying lidar remote sensing technology for this purpose. You’ll find the CALI website at the following link:

Areas in Cambodia surveyed using lidar in 2012 and 2015 are shown in the following map.

Angkor Wat and vicinity_CALISource: Cambodian Archaeological LIDAR Initiative (CALI)

CALI describes its objectives as follows:

“Using innovative airborne laser scanning (‘lidar’) technology, CALI will uncover, map and compare archaeological landscapes around all the major temple complexes of Cambodia, with a view to understanding what role these complex and vulnerable water management schemes played in the growth and decline of early civilizations in SE Asia. CALI will evaluate the hypothesis that the Khmer civilization, in a bid to overcome the inherent constraints of a monsoon environment, became locked into rigid and inflexible traditions of urban development and large-scale hydraulic engineering that constrained their ability to adapt to rapidly-changing social, political and environmental circumstances.”

Lidar is a surveying technique that creates a 3-dimensional map of a surface by measuring the distance to a target by illuminating the target with laser light. A 3-D map is created by measuring the distances to a very large number of different targets and then processing the data to filter out unwanted reflections (i.e., reflections from vegetation) and build a “3-D point cloud” image of the surface. In essence, lidar removes the surface vegetation, as shown in the following figure, and produces a map with a much clearer view of surface features and topography than would be available from conventional photographic surveys.

Lidar sees thru vegetation_CALISource: Cambodian Archaeological LIDAR Initiative

CALI uses a Leica ALS70 lidar instrument. You’ll find the product specifications for the Leica ALS70 at the following link:

CALI conducts its surveys from a helicopter with GPS and additional avionics to help manage navigation on the survey flights and provide helicopter geospatial coordinates to the lidar. The helicopter also is equipped with downward-looking and forward-looking cameras to provide visual photographic references for the lidar maps.

Basic workflow in a lidar instrument is shown in the following diagram.

Lidar instrument workflow_Leica

An example of the resulting point cloud image produced by a lidar is shown below.

Example lidar point cloud_Leica

Here are two views of a site named Choeung Ek; the first is an optical photograph and the second is a lidar view that removes most of the vegetation. I think you’ll agree that structures appear much more clearly in the lidar image.

Choueng_Ek_Photo_CALISource: Cambodian Archaeological LIDAR InitiativeChoueng_Ek_Lidar_CALISource: Cambodian Archaeological LIDAR Initiative

An example of a lidar image for a larger site is shown in the following map of the central monuments of the well-researched and mapped site named Sambor Prei Kuk. CALI reported:

“The lidar data adds a whole new dimension though, showing a quite complex system of moats, waterways and other features that had not been mapped in detail before. This is just the central few sq km of the Sambor Prei Kuk data; we actually acquired about 200 sq km over the site and its environs.”

Sambor Prei Kuk lidar_CALISource: Cambodian Archaeological LIDAR Initiative

For more information on the lidar archaeological surveys in Cambodia, please refer to the following recent articles:

See the 18 July 2016 article by Annalee Newitz entitled, “How archaeologists found the lost medieval megacity of Angkor,” on the arsTECHNICA website at the following link:

On the Smithsonian magazine website, see the April 2016 article entitled, “The Lost City of Cambodia,” at the following link:

Also on the Smithsonian magazine website, see the 14 June 2016 article by Jason Daley entitled, “Laser Scans Reveal Massive Khmer Cities Hidden in the Cambodian Jungle,” at the following link:

Exploring Microgravity Worlds

1.  Background:

We’re all familiar with scenes of the Apollo astronauts bounding across the lunar surface in the low gravity on the Moon, where gravity (g) is 0.17 of the gravity on the Earth’s surface. Driving the Apollo lunar rover kicked up some dust, but otherwise proved to be a practical means of transportation on the Moon’s surface. While the Moon’s gravity is low relative to Earth, techniques for achieving lunar orbit have been demonstrated by many spacecraft, many soft landings have been made, locomotion on the Moon’s surface with wheeled vehicles has worked well, and there is no risk of flying off into space by accidentally exceeding the Moon’s escape velocity.

There are many small bodies in the Solar System (i.e., dwarf planets, asteroids, comets) where gravity is so low that it creates unique problems for visiting spacecraft and future astronauts: For example:

  • Spacecraft require efficient propulsion systems and precise navigation along complex trajectories to rendezvous with the small body and then move into a station-keeping position or establish a stable orbit around the body.
  • Landers require precise navigation to avoid hazards on the surface of the body (i.e., craters, boulders, steep slopes), land gently in a specific safe area, and not rebound back into space after touching down.
  • Rovers require a locomotion system that is adapted to the specific terrain and microgravity conditions of the body and allows the rover vehicle to move across the surface of the body without risk of being launched back into space by reaction forces.
  • Many asteroids and comets are irregularly shaped bodies, so the surface gravity vector will vary significantly depending on where you are relative to the center of mass of the body.

You will find a long list of known objects in the Solar System, including many with diameters less than 1 km (0.62 mile), at the following link:

You can determine the gravity on the surface of a body in the Solar System using the following equation:

Equation for g

where (using metric):

g = acceleration due to gravity on the surface of the body (m/sec2)

G = universal gravitational constant = 6.672 x 10-11 m3/kg/sec2

M = mass of the body (kg)

r = radius of the body (which is assumed to be spherical) (m)

You can determine the escape velocity from a body using the following equation:

Equation - Escape velocity

Applying these equations to the Earth and several smaller bodies in in the Solar System yields the following results:

g and escape velocity table

Note how weak the gravity is on the small bodies in this table. These are very different conditions than on the surface of the Moon or Mars where the low gravity still allows relatively conventional locomotion.

As noted in my 31 December 2015 post, the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act,” which was signed into law on 25 November 2015, opens the way for U.S. commercial exploitation of space, including commercial missions to asteroids and comets.  Let’s take a look at missions to these microgravity worlds and some of the unique issues associated with visiting a microgravity world.

2.  Recent and Current Missions to Asteroids and Comets

There have been several spacecraft that have made a successful rendezvous with one or more small bodies in the Solar System. Several have been fly-by missions. Four spacecraft have flown in close formation with or entered orbit around low-gravity bodies. Three of these missions included landing on (or at least touching) the body, and one returned very small samples to Earth. These missions are:

  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) NEAR-Shoemaker
  • Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa
  • European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta
  • NASA’s Dawn

In addition, China’s Chang’e 2 mission demonstrated its ability to navigate to an asteroid intercept after completing its primary mission in lunar orbit. JAXA’s Hayabusa 2 mission currently is enroute to asteroid rendezvous.

Following is a short synopsis of each of these missions.

NASA’s NEAR-Shoemaker Mission (1996 – 2001): This mission was launched 17 February 1996 and on 27 June 1997 flew by the asteroid 253 Mathilde at a distance of about 1,200 km (746 miles).   On 14 February 2000, the spacecraft reached its destination and entered a near-circular orbit around the asteroid 433 Eros, which is about the size of Manhattan. After completing its survey of Eros, the NEAR spacecraft was maneuvered close to the surface and it touched down on 12 February 2001, after a four-hour descent, during which it transmitted 69 close-up images of the surface. Transmissions continued for a short time after landing. NEAR-Shoemaker was the first man-made object to soft-land on an asteroid.

Asteroid Eros                Asteroid EROS. Source: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL

JAXA’s Hayabusa Mission (2003 – 2010): The Hayabusa spacecraft was launched in May 2003. This solar-powered, ion-driven spacecraft rendezvoused with near-Earth asteroid 25143 Itokawa in mid-September 2005.

Asteroid Itokawa           Asteroid Itokawa. Source: JAXA

Hayabusa carried the solar-powered MINERVA (Micro/Nano Experimental Robot Vehicle for Asteroid) mini-lander, which was designed to be released close to the asteroid, land softly, and move across the surface using an internal flywheel and braking system to generate the momentum needed to hop in microgravity. However, MINERVA was not captured by the asteroid’s gravity after being released and was lost in deep space.

In November 2005, Hayabusa moved in from its station-keeping position and briefly touched the asteroid to collect surface samples in the form of tiny grains of asteroid material.

Hayabusa taking a sampleHayabusa in position to obtain samples. Source: JAXA

The spacecraft then backed off and navigated back to Earth using its failing ion thrusters. Hayabusa returned to Earth on 13 June 2010 and the sample-return capsule, with about 1,500 grains of asteroid material, was recovered after landing in the Woomera Test Range in the western Australian desert.

You’ll find a JAXA mission summary briefing at the following link:

ESA’s Rosetta Mission (2004 – present): The Rosetta spacecraft was launched in March 2004 and in August 2014 rendezvoused with and achieved orbit around irregularly shaped comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This comet orbits the Sun outside of Earth’s orbit, between 1.24 and 5.68 AU (astronomical units; 1 AU = average distance from Earth’s orbit to the Sun). The size of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is compared to downtown Los Angeles in the following figure.

ESA Attempts To Land Probe On CometSource: ESA

Currently, Rosetta remains in orbit around this comet. The lander, Philae, is on the surface after a dramatic rebounding landing on 12 November 2014. Anchoring devices failed to secure Philae after its initial touchdown. The lander bounced twice and finally came to rest in an unfavorable position after contacting the surface a third time, about two hours after the initial touchdown. Philae was the first vehicle to land on a comet and it briefly transmitted data back from the surface of the comet in November 2014 and again in June – July 2015.

NASA’s Dawn Mission (2007 – present): Dawn was launched on 27 September 2007 and used its ion engine to fly a complex flight path to a 2009 gravitational assist flyby of Mars and then a rendezvous with the large asteroid Vesta (2011 – 2012) in the main asteroid belt.

NASA_Dawn_spacecraft_near_Ceres   Dawn approaches Vesta. Source: NASA / JPL Caltech

Dawn spent 14 months in orbit surveying Vesta before departing to its next destination, the dwarf planet Ceres, which also is in the main asteroid belt. On 6 March 2015 Dawn was captured by Ceres’ gravity and entered its initial orbit following the complex trajectory shown in the following diagram.

Dawn navigation to Ceres orbit   Dawn captured by Ceres gravity. Source: NASA / JPL Caltech

Dawn is continuing its mapping mission in a circular orbit at an altitude of 385 km (240 miles), circling Ceres every 5.4 hours at an orbital velocity of about 983 kph (611 mph). The Dawn mission does not include a lander.

See my 20 March 2015 and 13 Sep 2015 posts for more information on the Dawn mission.

CNSA’s Chang’e 2 extended mission (2010 – present): The China National Space Agency’s (CNSA) Chang’e 2 spacecraft was launched in October 2010 and placed into a 100 km lunar orbit with the primary objective of mapping the lunar surface. After completing this objective in 2011, Chang’e 2 navigated to the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point, which is a million miles from Earth in the opposite direction of the Sun. In April 2012, Chang’e 2 departed L2 for an extended mission to asteroid 4179 Toutatis, which it flew by in December 2012.

Toutatis_from_Chang'e_2Asteroid Toutatis. Source: CHSA

JAXA’s Hayabusa 2 Mission (2014 – 2020): The JAXA Hayabusa 2 spacecraft was launched on 3 December 2014. This ion-propelled spacecraft is very similar to the first Hayabusa spacecraft. Its planned arrival date at the target asteroid, 1999 JU3 (Ryugu), is in mid-2018.   As you can see in the following diagram, 1999 JU3 is a substantially larger asteroid than Itokawa.

Hayabusa 1-2 target comparisonSource: JAXA

The spacecraft will spend about a year mapping the asteroid using Near Infrared Spectrometer (NIRS3) and Thermal Infrared Imager (TIR) instruments.

Hayabusa 2 includes three solar-powered MINERVA-II mini-landers and one battery-powered MASCOT (Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout) small lander. All landers will be deployed to the asteroid surface from an altitude of about 100 meters (328 feet) so they can be captured by the asteroid’s very weak gravity. The 1.6 – 2.5 kg (3.5 – 5.5 pounds) MINERVA-II landers will deliver imagery and temperature measurements. The 10 kg (22 pound) MASCOT will make measurements of surface composition and properties using a camera, magnetometer, radiometer, and infrared microscope. All landers are expected to make several hops to take measurements at different locations on the asteroid’s surface.

Three MINERVA landers


Three MINERVA mini-landers. Source: JAXA

MASCOT lander         MASCOT small lander. Source: JAXA

For sample collection, Hayabusa 2 will descend to the surface to capture samples of the surface material. A device called a Small Carry-on Impactor (SCI) will be deployed and should impact the surface at about 2 km/sec, creating a small crater to expose material beneath the asteroid’s surface. Hayabusa 2 will attempt to gather a sample of the exposed material. More information about SCI is available at the following link:

At the end of 2019, Hayabusa 2 is scheduled to depart asteroid 1999 JU3 (Ryugu) and return to Earth in 2020 with the collected samples. You will find more information on the Hayabusa 2 mission at the JAXA website at the following links:


3.  Future Missions:

NASA OSIRIS-REx: This NASA’s mission is expected to launch in September 2016, travel to the near-Earth asteroid 101955 Bennu, map the surface, harvest a sample of surface material, and return the samples to Earth for study. After arriving at Bennu in 2018, the solar-powered OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft will map the asteroid surface from a station-keeping distance of about 5 km (3.1 miles) using two primary mapping instruments: the OVIRS Visible and Infrared Spectrometer and the OTRS Thermal Emission Spectrometer. Together, these instruments are expected to develop a comprehensive map of Bennu’s mineralogical and molecular components and enable mission planners to target the specific site(s) to be sampled. In 2019, a robotic arm on OSIRIS-REx will collect surface samples during one or more very close approaches, without landing. These samples (60 grams minimum) will be loaded into a small capsule that is scheduled to return to Earth in 2023.

OSIRIS-REx SpacecraftOSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Source: NASA / ASU

For more information on OSIRIS-REx, visit the NASA website at the following link:

and the ASU website at the following link:

NASA Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM): This mission will involve rendezvousing with a near-Earth asteroid, mapping the surface for about a year, and locating a suitable bolder to be captured [maximum diameter about 4 meters (13.1 feet)]. The ARM spacecraft will land and capture the intended bolder, lift off and deliver the bolder into a stable lunar orbit during the first half of the next decade. The current reference target is known as asteroid 2008 EV5.

ARM asteroid-capture      ARM lander gripping a bolder on an asteroid. Source: NASA

You can find more information on the NASA Asteroid Redirect Mission at the following links:


4. Locomotion in Microgravity

OK, you’ve landed on a small asteroid, your spacecraft has anchored itself to the surface and now you want to go out and explore the surface. If this is asteroid 2008 EV5, the local gravity is about 1.79 E-05 that of Earth (less than 2/100,000 the gravity of Earth) and the escape velocity is about 0.6 mph (1 kph). Just how are you going to move about on the surface and not launch yourself on an escape trajectory into deep space?

There is a good article on the problems of locomotion in microgravity in a 7 March 2015 article entitled, “A Lightness of Being,” in the Economist magazine. You can find this article on the Economist website at the following link:

In this article, it is noted that:

“Wheeled and tracked rovers could probably be made to work in gravity as low as a hundredth of that on Earth……But in the far weaker microgravity of small bodies like asteroids and comets, they would fail to get a grip in fine regolith. Wheels also might hover above the ground, spinning hopelessly and using up power. So an entirely different system of locomotion is needed for rovers operating in a microgravity.”

Novel concepts for locomotion in microgravity include:

  • Hoppers / tumblers
  • Structurally compliant rollers
  • Grippers

Hoppers / tumblers: Hoppers are designed to move across a surface using a moving internal mass that can be controlled to transfer momentum to the body of the rover to cause it to tumble or to generate a more dramatic hop, which is a short ballistic trajectory in microgravity. The magnitude of the hop must be controlled so the lander does not exceed escape velocity during a hop. JAXA’s MINERVA-II and MASCOT asteroid landers both are hoppers.

JAXA described the MINERVA-II hopping mechanism as follows:

“MINERVA can hop from one location to another using two DC motors – the first serving as a torquer, rotating an internal mass that leads to a resulting force, sufficient to make the rover hop for several meters. The second motor rotates the table on which the torquer is placed in order to control the direction of the hop. The rover reaches a top speed of 9 centimeters per second, allowing it to hop a considerable distance.”

JAXA MINERVA hopperMINERVA torque & turntable. Source: JAXA

The MASCOT hopper operates on a different principle:

“With a mass of not even half a gram in the gravitational field of the asteroid, the (MASCOT) lander can easily withstand its initial contact with the surface and several bounces that are expected upon landing. It also means that only small forces are needed to move the lander from point to point. MASCOT’s Mobility System essentially consists of an off-centered mass installed on an eccentric arm that moves that mass to generate momentum that is sufficient to either rotate the lander to face the surface with its instruments or initiate a hop of up to 70 meters to get to the next sampling site.”

MASCOT Mobility SystemMASCOT mobility mechanism. Source: JAXA

You will find a good animation of MASCOT and its Mobility System at the following link:

NASA is examining a class of microgravity rovers called “hedgehogs” that are designed to hop and tumble on microgravity surfaces by spinning and braking a set of three internal flywheels. Cushions or spikes at the corners of the cubic body of a hedgehog protect the body from the terrain and act as feet while hopping and tumbling.

NASA Hedgehog                               NASA Hedgehog prototype. Source: NASA

Read more on the NASA hedgehog rovers at the following link:

Structurally compliant rollers: One means of “rolling” across a microgravity surface is with a deformable structure that allows the location of the center of mass to be controlled in a way that causes the rover to tip over in the desired direction of motion. NASA is exploring the use of a class of rolling rovers called Super Ball Bots, which are terrestrial rovers based on a R. Buckminster Fuller’s tensegrity toy. NASA explains:

“The Super Ball Bot has a sphere-like matrix of cables and joints that could withstand being dropped from a spacecraft high above a planetary surface and hit the ground with a bounce. Once on the planet, the joints could adjust to roll the bot in any direction while housing a data collecting device within its core.”

NASA Super Ball Bot                    Source:

You’ll find a detailed description of the principles behind tensegrity (tensional integrity) in a 1961 R. Buckminster Fuller paper at the following link:

Grippers: Without having a grip on a microgravity body, a rover cannot use sampling tools that generate a reaction force on the rover (i.e., drills, grinders, chippers). For such operations to be successful a rover needs an anchoring system to secure the rover and transfer the reaction loads into the microgravity body.

An approach being developed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) involves articulated feet with microspine grippers that have a large number of small claws that can grip irregular rocky surfaces.

JPL microspine gripper           Microspine gripper. Source: NASA / JPL

Such a gripper could be used to hold a rover in place during mechanical sampling activities or to allow a rover to climb across an irregular surface like a spider.  See more about the operation of the NASA / JPL microspine gripper at the following link:

5. Conclusions

Missions to small bodies in our Solar System are very complex undertakings that require very advanced technologies in many areas, including: propulsion, navigation, autonomous controls, remote sensing, and locomotion in microgravity. The ambitious current and planned future missions will greatly expand our knowledge of these small bodies and the engineering required to operate spacecraft in their vicinity and on their surface.

While commercial exploitation of dwarf planets, asteroids and comets still may sound like science fiction, the technical foundation for such activities is being developed now. It’s hard to guess how much progress will be made in the next decades. However, I’m convinced that the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act,” will encourage commercial investments in space exploration and exploitation and lead to much greater progress than if we depended on NASA alone.

The technologies being developed also may lead, in the long term, to effective techniques for redirecting an asteroid or comet that poses a threat to Earth. Such a development would give our Planetary Defense Officer (see my 21 January 2016 post) an actual tool for defending the planet.

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and Inverse SAR (ISAR) Enable an Amazing Range of Remote Sensing Applications

SAR Basics

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) is an imaging radar that operates at microwave frequencies and can “see” through clouds, smoke and foliage to reveal detailed images of the surface below in all weather conditions. Below is a SAR image superimposed on an optical image with clouds, showing how a SAR image can reveal surface details that cannot be seen in the optical image.

Example SAR imageSource: Cassidian radar, Eurimage optical

SAR systems usually are carried on airborne or space-based platforms, including manned aircraft, drones, and military and civilian satellites. Doppler shifts from the motion of the radar relative to the ground are used to electronically synthesize a longer antenna, where the synthetic length (L) of the aperture is equal to: L = v x t, where “v” is the relative velocity of the platform and “t” is the time period of observation. Depending on the altitude of the platform, “L” can be quite long. The time-multiplexed return signals from the radar antenna are electronically recombined to produce the desired images in real-time or post-processed later.

SAR principle

Source: Christian Wolff,

This principle of SAR operation was first identified in 1951 by Carl Wiley and patented in 1954 as “Simultaneous Buildup Doppler.”

SAR Applications

There are many SAR applications, so I’ll just highlight a few.

Boeing E-8 JSTARS: The Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System is an airborne battle management, command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform, the prototypes of which were first deployed by the U.S. Air Force during the 1991 Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm). The E-8 platform is a modified Boeing 707 with a 27 foot (8 meter) long, canoe-shaped radome under the forward fuselage that houses a 24 foot (7.3 meters) long, side-looking, multi-mode, phased array antenna that includes a SAR mode of operation. The USAF reports that this radar has a field of view of up to 120-degrees, covering nearly 19,305 square miles (50,000 square kilometers).


Lockheed SR-71: This Mach 3 high-altitude reconnaissance jet carried the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System (ASARS-1) in its nose. ASARS-1 had a claimed 1 inch resolution in spot mode at a range of 25 to 85 nautical miles either side of the flight path.  This SAR also could map 20 to 100 nautical mile swaths on either side of the aircraft with lesser resolution.


Northrop RQ-4 Global Hawk: This is a large, multi-purpose, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can simultaneously carry out electro-optical, infrared, and synthetic aperture radar surveillance as well as high and low band signal intelligence gathering.

Global HawkSource: USAF

Below is a representative RQ-4 2-D SAR image that has been highlighted to show passable and impassable roads after severe hurricane damage in Haiti. This is an example of how SAR data can be used to support emergency management.

Global Hawk Haiti post-hurricane image123-F-0000X-103Source: USAF

NASA Space Shuttle: The Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) used the Space-borne Imaging Radar (SIR-C) and X-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar (X-SAR) to map 140 mile (225 kilometer) wide swaths, imaging most of Earth’s land surface between 60 degrees north and 56 degrees south latitude. Radar antennae were mounted in the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay, and at the end of a deployable 60 meter mast that formed a long-baseline interferometer. The interferometric SAR data was used to generate very accurate 3-D surface profile maps of the terrain.

Shuttle STRMSource: NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory

An example of SRTM image quality is shown in the following X-SAR false-color digital elevation map of Mt. Cotopaxi in Ecuador.

Shuttle STRM imageSource: NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory

You can find more information on SRTM at the following link:

ESA’s Sentinel satellites: Refer to my 4 May 2015 post, “What Satellite Data Tell Us About the Earthquake in Nepal,” for information on how the European Space Agency (ESA) assisted earthquake response by rapidly generating a post-earthquake 3-D ground displacement map of Nepal using SAR data from multiple orbits (i.e., pre- and post-earthquake) of the Sentinel-1A satellite.  You can find more information on the ESA Sentinel SAR platform at the following link:

You will find more general information on space-based SAR remote sensing applications, including many high-resolution images, in a 2013 European Space Agency (ESA) presentation, “Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR): Principles and Applications”, by Alberto Moreira, at the following link:

ISAR Basics

ISAR technology uses the relative movement of the target rather than the emitter to create the synthetic aperture. The ISAR antenna can be mounted in a airborne platform. Alternatively, ISAR also can be used by one or more ground-based antennae to generate a 2-D or 3-D radar image of an object moving within the field of view.

ISAR Applications

Maritime surveillance: Maritime surveillance aircraft commonly use ISAR systems to detect, image and classify surface ships and other objects in all weather conditions. Because of different radar reflection characteristics of the sea, the hull, superstructure, and masts as the vessel moves on the surface of the sea, vessels usually stand out in ISAR images. There can be enough radar information derived from ship motion, including pitching and rolling, to allow the ISAR operator to manually or automatically determine the type of vessel being observed. The U.S. Navy’s new P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft carry the AN/APY-10 multi-mode radar system that includes both SAR and ISAR modes of operation.

The principles behind ship classification is described in detail in the 1993 MIT paper, “An Automatic Ship Classification System for ISAR Imagery,” by M. Menon, E. Boudreau and P. Kolodzy, which you can download at the following link:

You can see in the following example ISAR image of a vessel at sea that vessel classification may not be obvious to the casual observer. I can see that an automated vessel classification system is very useful.

Ship ISAR image

Source: Blanco-del-Campo, A. et al.,

Imaging Objects in Space: Another ISAR (also called “delayed Doppler”) application is the use of one or more large radio telescopes to generate radar images of objects in space at very long ranges. The process for accomplishing this was described in a 1960 MIT Lincoln Laboratory paper, “Signal Processing for Radar Astronomy,” by R. Price and P.E. Green.

Currently, there are two powerful ground-based radars in the world capable of investigating solar system objects: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Goldstone Solar System Radar (GSSR) in California and the National Science Foundation (NSF) Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. News releases on China’s new FAST radio telescope have not revealed if it also will be able to operate as a planetary radar (see my 18 February 2016 post).

The 230 foot (70 meter) GSSR has an 8.6 GHz (X-band) radar transmitter powered by two 250 kW klystrons. You can find details on GSSR and the techniques used for imaging space objects in the article, “Goldstone Solar System Radar Observatory: Earth-Based Planetary Mission Support and Unique Science Results,” which you can download at the following link:

The 1,000 foot (305 meter) Arecibo Observatory has a 2.38 GHz (S-band) radar transmitter, originally rated at 420 kW when it was installed in 1974, and upgraded in 1997 to 1 MW along with other significant upgrades to improve radio telescope and planetary radar performance. You will find details on the design and upgrades of Arecibo at the following link:

The following examples demonstrate the capabilities of Arecibo Observatory to image small bodies in the solar system.

  • In 1999, this radar imaged the Near-Earth Asteroid 1999 JM 8 at a distance of about 5.6 million miles (9 million km) from Earth. The ISAR images of this 1.9 mile 3-km) sized object had a resolution of about 49 feet (15 meters).
  • In November 1999, Arecibo Observatory imaged the tumbling Main-Belt Asteroid 216 Kleopatra. The resulting ISAR images, which made the cover of Science magazine, showed a dumbbell-shaped object with an approximate length of 134.8 miles (217 kilometers) and varying diameters up to 58.4 miles (94 kilometers).

Asteroid image  Source: Science

More details on the use of Arecibo Observatory to image planets and other bodies in the solar system can be found at the following link:

The NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory Asteroid Radar Research website also contains information on the use of radar to map asteroids and includes many examples of asteroid radar images. Access this website at the following link:


In recent years, SAR units have become smaller and more capable as hardware is miniaturized and better integrated. For example, Utah-based Barnard Microsystems offers a miniature SAR for use in lightweight UAVs such as the Boeing ScanEagle. The firm claimed that their two-pound “NanoSAR” radar, shown below, weighed one-tenth as much as the smallest standard SAR (typically 30 – 200 pounds; 13.6 – 90.7 kg) at the time it was announced in March 2008. Because of power limits dictated by the radar circuit boards and power supply limitations on small UAVs, the NanoSAR has a relatively short range and is intended for tactical use on UAVs flying at a typical ScanEagle UAV operational altitude of about 16,000 feet.

Barnard NanoSARSource: Barnard Microsystems

ScanEagle_UAVScanEagle UAV. Source: U.S. Marine Corps.

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) recently announced that its scientists had developed a miniaturized SAR on a chip, which will allow SAR systems to be made a hundred times smaller than current ones.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Source: NTU

NTU reports:

“The single-chip SAR transmitter/receiver is less than 10 sq. mm (0.015 sq. in.) in size, uses less than 200 milliwatts of electrical power and has a resolution of 20 cm (8 in.) or better. When packaged into a 3 X 4 X 5-cm (0.9 X 1.2 X 1.5 in.) module, the system weighs less than 100 grams (3.5 oz.), making it suitable for use in micro-UAVs and small satellites.”

NTU estimates that it will be 3 to 6 years before the chip is ready for commercial use. You can read the 29 February 2016 press release from NTU at the following link:

With such a small and hopefully low cost SAR that can be integrated with low-cost UAVs, I’m sure we’ll soon see many new and useful radar imaging applications.







Another Record-setting Year for Global Temperature

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) released the results of an analysis by NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that showed that globally-averaged temperature in 2015 was the highest since modern record keeping began in 1880. You can read the NOAA / NASA press release at the following link:

You can download a copy of the more detailed NOAA / NASA briefing at the following link:

The analysis shows that globally-averaged temperature in 2015 exceeded the previous mark set in 2014 by 0.23 degrees Fahrenheit (0.13 degrees Celsius) and continued a warming trend, as shown in the following graph.

gistemp_graph_2015Source: NASA Goddard

In this graph, the zero on the y-axis is the average temperature for a 30-year period from 1951 to 1980. The trend lines show results for El Niño years (orange), La Niña years (blue), and all years (dashed line). The 2015 globally-averaged temperature was:

  • 57° F (0.87° C) above the 1951 to 1980 30-year (baseline) average, and
  • 62° F (0.90° C) above the 1901 to 2000 100-year (20th century) average

The distribution of global temperatures relative to the 1951 – 80 baseline is shown in the following charts.

NOAA:NASA briefing_1_Jan2016

NOAA:NASA briefing_2_Jan2016Source, both graphics: NOAA / NASA Annual Global Analysis for 2015

The NOAA / NASA press release cited above includes an animation that helps visualize Earth’s long-term warming trend based on data from 1880 to 2015. NOAA / NASA note that phenomena such as El Niño or La Niña, which warm or cool the tropical Pacific Ocean, can contribute to short-term variations in global average temperature. A warming El Niño was in effect for most of 2015

The full 2015 surface temperature data set and the complete methodology used by NOAA / NASA in their analysis are available to the public on the GISS Surface Temperature Analysis (GISTEMP) webpage at the following link:

The availability of the data and the analytical methodology allows the NOAA / NASA results to be subject to independent scrutiny. I commend NOAA and NASA for their openness in this matter, which will aid in reaching scientific consensus on the NOAA / NASA results.

This behavior by NOAA / NASA is a stark contrast to the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has failed to provide full public access to their underlying data and analytical methodologies and has been criticized for failing to rigorously apply the scientific method in their work. To help understand why the IPCC claim of “scientific consensus” is without merit, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) published the book, “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming,” on 30 November 2015. You can download this document for free at the following link:

To help put this in perspective, I thank cartoonist Wiley Miller for the following timely and insightful cartoon published on 20 January 2016. I challenge you to apply this cartoon to your understanding of the climate change debate.

Cartoon Science_Jan2016Source: San Diego Union Tribune

U.S. Drought Indicators Derived From GRACE Satellite Data

Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center generate groundwater and soil moisture drought indicators each week. They are based on terrestrial water storage observations derived from GRACE satellite data and integrated with other observations, using a sophisticated numerical model of land surface water and energy processes. You can see current results for the continental U.S. at the following link to the National Drought Mitigation Center (NMDC), University of Nebraska-Lincoln, website:

Drought indicator maps for 6 July 2015 are reproduced below for:

  • Surface soil moisture
  • Root zone soil moisture
  • Shallow groundwater

The drought in the U.S. West looks most severe in the shallow groundwater map.

You can find information on the twin GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) satellites at the following link:




What Satellite Data Tell Us About the Earthquake in Nepal

A 7.8 magnitude earthquake occurred in the Gorkha region of Nepal on 29 April 2015. A ground displacement map based on data gathered from the Sentinel-1A satellite is shown below. In this image, yellow areas represent uplift and the blue areas represent subsidence.

image Source: ESA

Surface ruptures are places in the ground where the quake has cracked the rock all the way up to the surface. Preliminary satellite data indicate that the Nepal earthquake did not cause any new surface ruptures.

Interferometric analysis of before and after satellite data can be used to measure more subtle changes in the vertical height of the ground along the fault line. Preliminary results from an interferometric analysis by the European Space Agency (ESA), generated from satellite scans of Nepal from April 17 and 29, 2015, is shown in the following image.

image  Source: ESA

Each fringe of color represents 2.8 cm of ground deformation. Areas immediately south of the fault line, like Kathmandu, sank more than a meter into the ground as a result of the quake. Directly north of the fault slip, further into the Himalayas, the ground was lifted up by about a half meter, indicated by the yellow in the first image, above.

Imagine the difficulty of gathering such data from direct physical examination of the affected area.

Read the full article on the Nepal earthquake preliminary satellite data analysis at the following link:

Read a general article on the use of satellite data to map earthquakes at the following link:


Where on Earth Does Lightning Flash Most?

According to satellite observations summarized in the following map, lightning occurs more often over land than over the oceans and more often closer to the equator.

image   Source: NASA

The map above shows the average yearly counts of lightning flashes per square kilometer from 1995 to 2013. The map was created using data collected from 1998–2013 by the Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS) on NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite, and from 1995–2000 by the Optical Transient Detector (OTD) on the OrbView 1/Microlab satellite. Flashes above 38 degrees North were observed by OTD only, as the satellite flew to higher latitudes.

Areas with the fewest number of flashes each year are gray or purple; areas with the largest number of lightning flashes—as many as 150 per year per square kilometer—are bright pink.  Be careful where you pitch your tent if you go on safari in central Africa.

Check out the story at the following link:

First Global Precipitation Map from NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory

The Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory – an initiative launched in 2014 as a collaboration between NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) – acts as the standard to unify precipitation measurements from a network of 12 satellites. The result is NASA’s integrated multi-satellite retrievals for the GPM data product, called IMERG, which combines all of these data from 12 satellites into a single, seamless map.  An example of this global map is shown below:
Global precipitation map
Check out the short article and watch a short video showing the synthesized global precipitation map in action at the following NASA link:
More details on GMP mission can be found at the following NASA website: