GEOG 474
Energy Sources and Radiometric Principles


4 basic components of a remote sensing system
Electromagnetic Radiation (emr)
Electromagnetic energy (radiation) is one of many forms of energy (such as chemical, electrical, kinetic, magnetic, nuclear, or thermal).

EMR is the source of signals collected by most remote sensing instruments

The source of this energy varies depending on the sensor characteristics

Most systems rely on the sun to generate all the EM energy needed to image earth's atmosphere and land surfaces. These systems are called passive sensors. Other sensors generate their own energy, called active sensors, transmits energy in a certain direction and records the portion reflected back by features within the signal path.

Electromagnetic energy can be generated by changes in the energy levels of electrons, acceleration of electrical charges, decay of radioactive substances, and the thermal motion of atoms and molecules. Nuclear reactions within the sun produce a full spectrum of EM radiation which is transmitted through space without major changes in its character until it reaches the atmosphere.

Emr consists of an electrical and magnetic field that varies in magnitude in a direction perpendicular to the direction of propagation.

Electromagnetic Spectrum (ems)
EMS represents the continuum of electromagnetic energy from extremely short wavelengths  (cosmic and gamma rays) to extremely long wavelengths (microwaves).  Spectrum  is arbitrarily segmented into major divisions. There are no natural breaks in the ems. These separations are made by us for our convenience.

UV - 3 nanometers - .4 micrometers

VISIBLE - small portion of the EMS  that humans are sensitive to
BLUE (.4-.5 micrometers)
GREEN (.5-.6 micrometers)
RED (.6-.73 micrometers)

INFRARED SPECTRUM - .72 - 15 micrometers
- There are three logical zones in the IR spectrum:

NEAR INFRARED - reflected, can be recorded on film emulsions. (0.7 - 1.3 micrometers)
MID INFRARED - reflected, can be detected using electro-optical sensors. (1.3 - 3.0 micrometers)
THERMAL INFRARED - emitted, can only be detected using electro-optical sensors. (3.0 - 5.0 and 8 - 14 micrometers)

MICROWAVE - Radar sensors, wavelengths range from 1mm to 1m

Units of Wavelength

The basic unit in which wavelengths are measured in the meter (m). In remote sensing, most energy in the visible and infrared portions of the electromagnetic spectrum is measured in micrometers (10-6 m). However, some wavelengths (such as radio and microwaves) are too long for the micrometer to be a convenient unit of measure. For example, while the wavelength of blue light is approximately 0.4-0.5 micrometers, a radio wave is in the neighborhood of 100,000,000 micrometers long (100 m)! You should be aware that visible wavelengths (including ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared) are frequently referred to in units other than the micrometer. Astronomers use a unit called angstrom (10-10 m) to measure these wavelengths. One micrometer equals 10,000 angstroms. Occasionally you may run across this unit when reading satellite documentation from NASA, although most of the information they have for remote sensing audiences uses micrometers. Also, some of the older literature in remote sensing refers to micrometers as microns, and many of the biological sciences still use "micron". One micron equals one micrometer.


Basic Principles of Electromagnetic Energy
Modern physics view EMR as having dual nature, enabling it to be independently described as a wave or a particle.

Wave Model (basic wave theory - Maxwell's equations)

Shows EMR carried by a series of continuous waves that are equally and repetitively spaced in time (harmonic waves)

Wave pattern is in the form of 2 fluctuating fields - one electric and the other magnetic. Each has a sinusoidal shape because their plots resemble sine curves.

Paired fields are perpendicular to each other, and both are perpendicular to direction of wave propagation (transverse waves)

Wave nature of EMR is characterized by:

Wavelength and frequency are related to the velocity of an electromagnetic wave (speed of light) -

        speed of light (c)  = frequency (f) x wavelength (lambda)   (1)

- frequency and wavelength are directly proportional to velocity which is essentially a constant
- electromagnetic energy travels at the speed of light 2.99983x108  (3x108 ) ms-1  (186,000 miles s-1)
- wavelength and frequency have an inverse relationship

Particle Model
Emphasizes behavior of EMR as if EMR were composed of a collection of discrete, particle-like objects called quanta or photons, in which electromagnetic  energy is transferred at the speed of light.

Energy of a quantum is given as:

Q = h f = (h c) / lambda (2)

Q - energy of quantum [Joules - J]
h - Plank's constant [6.26x10-34 J s]
- direct relationship between frequency and energy (energy of a photon varies directly with frequency)

- inverse relationship between wavelength and energy (energy of a photon varies inversely with wavelength)

Relate wave model and quantum model of emr (Equation 1 and 2)
1. solving for f yielding 
2. substituting intoQ=hf yielding 
This equation shows that the shorter the wavelength, the higher the energy.

For this reason, shorter wavelengths are easier to sense than very long ones such as passive terrestrial microwave emissions


Remote sensing is concerned with the measurement of EMR returned by the Earth's natural and man-made features that first receive energy from the sun or an artificial source such as a radar transmitter.

Different objects return different types and amounts of EMR.

Objective of remote sensing is to detect these differences with the appropriate instruments.

Differences make it possible to identify and assess a broad range of surface features and their conditions

Energy Sources
Electromagnetic waves are radiated through space from some source.

When the energy encounters an object, even a very tiny one like a molecule of air, one of three reactions occurs.

Total amount of radiation that strikes an object is incident radiation -
reflected radiation + absorbed radiation + transmitted radiation  (3)

In remote sensing, we are largely concerned with REFLECTED RADIATION.  Reflected radiation causes our eyes to see colors, causes infrared film to record vegetation, and allows radar images of the earth to be created.  Source of a vast majority of this reflected radiation is the sun.

While the sun is the most obvious source of the electromagnetic energy measured in remote sensing, it is not the only energy source one might encounter. This is because all matter at temperatures greater than absolute zero (0 Kelvin) continuously emits electromagnetic radiation. Generally, the hotter an object is, the more it radiates, but all objects with even the slightest sub-molecular motion radiate some energy.

Remote Sensing uses electromagnetic energy from both natural and man-made sources.

Blackbody Model

Blackbody curves in figure

Radiation Laws

Plank's Radiation Law for Blackbodies gives the spectral radiance of an object as a function of its temperature.

Wien's Displacement law

If we differentiate Plank's Radiation Law for blackbodies and set it equal to zero, we arrive at a formula which gives the wavelength of maximum radiance for a blackbody of a given temperature. This formula is referred to as Wien's Displacement Law.

Finally, if a blackbody is acting as a perfect emitter, the total emitted energy over the whole spectrum is given by the
Stefan-Boltzmann law:

Source materials:  Remote Sensing Core Curriculum and Utah State Geography Department Remote Sensing Lecture Materials

Return to Geog474 Homepage

Last revised on September 22, 1999 by Tracy DeLiberty.