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Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Sensors
3. Microwaves
4. Image Analysis
5. Applications

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Fundamentals of Remote Sensing

Chapter 1. IntroductionSection 1.2Section 1.4


1.3 The Electromagnetic Spectrum

The electromagnetic spectrum ranges from the shorter wavelengths (including gamma and x-rays) to the longer wavelengths (including microwaves and broadcast radio waves). There are several regions of the electromagnetic spectrum which are useful for remote sensing.

Electromagnetic Spectrum


Ultraviolet or UVFor most purposes, the ultraviolet or UV portion of the spectrum has the shortest wavelengths which are practical for remote sensing. This radiation is just beyond the violet portion of the visible wavelengths, hence its name. Some Earth surface materials, primarily rocks and minerals, fluoresce or emit visible light when illuminated by UV radiation.



Visible Spectrum

The light which our eyes - our "remote sensors" - can detect is part of the visible spectrum. It is important to recognize how small the visible portion is relative to the rest of the spectrum. There is a lot of radiation around us which is "invisible" to our eyes, but can be detected by other remote sensing instruments and used to our advantage. The visible wavelengths cover a range from approximately 0.4 to 0.7 mm. The longest visible wavelength is red and the shortest is violet. Common wavelengths of what we perceive as particular colours from the visible portion of the spectrum are listed below. It is important to note that this is the only portion of the spectrum we can associate with the concept of colours.



  • Violet: 0.4 - 0.446 mm
  • Blue: 0.446 - 0.500 mm
  • Green: 0.500 - 0.578 mm
  • Yellow: 0.578 - 0.592 mm
  • Orange: 0.592 - 0.620 mm
  • Red: 0.620 - 0.7 mm


PrismBlue, green, and red are the primary colours or wavelengths of the visible spectrum. They are defined as such because no single primary colour can be created from the other two, but all other colours can be formed by combining blue, green, and red in various proportions. Although we see sunlight as a uniform or homogeneous colour, it is actually composed of various wavelengths of radiation in primarily the ultraviolet, visible and infrared portions of the spectrum. The visible portion of this radiation can be shown in its component colours when sunlight is passed through a prism, which bends the light in differing amounts according to wavelength.


Infrared (IR) RegionThe next portion of the spectrum of interest is the infrared (IR) region which covers the wavelength range from approximately 0.7 mm to 100 mm - more than 100 times as wide as the visible portion! The infrared region can be divided into two categories based on their radiation properties - the reflected IR, and the emitted or thermal IR. Radiation in the reflected IR region is used for remote sensing purposes in ways very similar to radiation in the visible portion. The reflected IR covers wavelengths from approximately 0.7 mm to 3.0 mm. The thermal IR region is quite different than the visible and reflected IR portions, as this energy is essentially the radiation that is emitted from the Earth's surface in the form of heat. The thermal IR covers wavelengths from approximately 3.0 mm to 100 mm.



Microwave RegionThe portion of the spectrum of more recent interest to remote sensing is the microwave region from about 1 mm to 1 m. This covers the longest wavelengths used for remote sensing. The shorter wavelengths have properties similar to the thermal infrared region while the longer wavelengths approach the wavelengths used for radio broadcasts. Because of the special nature of this region and its importance to remote sensing in Canada, an entire chapter (Chapter 3) of the tutorial is dedicated to microwave sensing.

Section 1.2 Did you Know Whiz Quiz Section 1.4

Updated2002-08-21 go to top of page Important Notices