Think you know remote sensing satellites? Think again. Here are the top 50 earth observing satellites that silently orbit the Earth. From weather forecasting to precise position, each satellite has a purpose. We describe each one in 30 words or less. Ranked by research articles published.

1. Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS)

Precise GPS Positioning NASA Research Articles: 72,800

An engineering marvel. Removing selective availability has enabled us to pinpoint our exact GPS location anywhere on Earth using this 32 satellite system.
(Image Credit: NASA;)

2. Landsat

Land Resources NASA/USGS Research Articles: 12,700

Its incredible long-lived legacy has archived Earth’s history for over 40 years. With countless applications, it even found the island Landsat in Canada.
(Image Credit: NASA;)
READ MORE: Landsat Program: Satellite Imagery Data and Bands

3. Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre (SPOT)

Legacy Satellite CNES, Airbus Defence & Space Research Articles: 4,800

In 1986, France’s SPOT-1 satellite was cutting edge in the world of remote sensing. Since then, it has captured Earth’s vegetation, elevation and even the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine.
(Image Credit: Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales CNES;)
READ MORE: SPOT Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre

4. Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM)

Tropical Weather and Global Energy NASA Research Articles: 3,910

Tropical explorer gazing cloud structure and precipitation roughly along the equator. By understand these mechanisms; scientists can better predict global energy balances, water cycles and El Niño.
(Image Credit: NASA;)

5. Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)

Weather Satellite NOAA Research Articles: 2,860

GOES knows weather. Since 1975, this geostationary squad of satellites (amongst others) are the unsung heroes in forecasting our planet’s weather.
(Image Credit: NASA;)

6. Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)

Gravity and Climate NASA Research Articles: 2,770

Genius concept. Satellite tag team nicknamed Ben & Jerry constantly chasing one another. Each satellite measures each other’s shifts where gravity pull is stronger on Earth.
(Image Credit: NASA;)
READ MORE: GRACE Role in the Geoid: Our Hypothetical Mean Sea Level

7. Terra

Land, Air & Terrain NASA Research Articles: 2,110

Part of NASA’S multi-talented A-Train fleet. Capabilities include terrain modelling (ASTER), land cover classification (MODIS) and air quality monitoring (MOPITT).
(Image Credit: NASA;)

8. EnviSAT


Before losing contact in 2012, it was a heavy-lifter in ocean, hydrological, terrain and atmospheric studies. Because of its massive frame (8 tons), it is a candidate to be removed from orbit.
(Image Credit: Airbus & Defense/ESA)

9. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Satellite (NOAA)

Weather Satellite NOAA Research Articles: 1,810 NOAA satellites enable us to get a complete view of weather and environmental conditions around the world each day. (Image Credit: NASA;)

10. Advanced Land Observation Satellite (ALOS)

Weather & Terrain JAXA Research Articles: 1,780

JAXA’s ALOS World 3D (DAICHI) is the world’s most precise DEM at 5-meter resolution with 5-meter height accuracy. ALOS-2 has several upgrades including its L-band PALSAR radar and stereo mapping (PRISM).
(Image Credit: JAXA;)


C-Band Radar Canadian Space Agency   Research Articles: 1,760

Radarsat-2 is Canada’s Arctic monitoring C-band radar from space. Its 3 future satellites part of the Radarsat constellation mission will hone in on managing resources on the Great White North’s land mass.
(Image Credit: © Canadian Space Agency;)


12. PlanetScope (Dove)

Earth coverage Planet Research Articles: 1,560

Low cost. Low weight. Low Earth. This orchestra of micro satellites (nicknamed doves) orbit the Earth in concert scanning at 3-5 meter resolution images.
(Image Credit: Planet)



Geostationary observer of meteorology in Europe and Africa. Beams images of Europe’s weather one in every 15 minutes for weather forecasting.
(Image Credit: ESA;)

14. Sentinel

Multi-spectral and Radar European Space Agency Research Articles: 1,380

Copernicus Programme’s exciting fleet of 6 missions to understand Earth’s climate. Sentinel-2’s 12 spectral bands and 10-meter true color is a game changer in open data.
(Image Credit: ESA;)
READ MORE: How to Download Free Sentinel Satellite Data

15. Corona


Strategic, James Bond-style military satellite in 1960s that was used to spy on the Soviet Union. Reconnaissance images have become declassified and are now commonly used by archaeologists.
(Image Credit: National Reconnaissance Office;)


Land Science DigitalGlobe Research Articles: 1,300

A satellite marvel at its time, IKONOS was the first commercial satellite granted a license in America. However, IKONOS-1 never made it to space. IKONOS-2 did and was renamed IKONOS.
(Image courtesy © 2017 DigitalGlobe)
READ MORE: IKONOS Satellite Imagery: First Commercial Space-based Imaging

17. TerraSAR (TanDEM-X)

Topography Airbus Defence and Space   Research Articles: 1,270

German twin satellites that carved out the unrivaled WorldDEM using X-band SAR. TerraSAR is also incredibly useful for surface movement, disaster mitigation and environmental applications.
(Image Courtesy of Airbus & Defense;)

18. Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE)

Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE)

GOCE specializes in measuring Earth’s gravity field and ocean behavior with unprecedented detail. It accomplishes this feat using a highly sensitive gradiometer and three pairs of accelerometers.
(Image Courtesy of ESA/Airbus & Defense;)

19. Worldview

(Image courtesy © 2017 DigitalGlobe;)

DigitalGlobe’s cutting-edge high resolution satellite that can carve out ridiculously crisp imagery (31 cm) almost being able to decipher license plates.
(Image courtesy © 2017 DigitalGlobe;)

20. Quickbird

Land resources DigitalGlobe Research Articles: 993

The versatile and cost effective QuickBird satellite delivered high-resolution (60 cm) optical imagery seamlessly of the world. In 2015, it was decommissioned.
(Image courtesy © 2017 DigitalGlobe)

21. Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS)

Soil Moisture NASA/JPL Research Articles: 986

Coarse passive instrument weighing in on soil moisture and ocean salinity to enhance our knowledge of the land and ocean processes.
(Image Credit: ESA;)

22. ResourceSAT


Original named IRS, ResourceSAT is an Indian polar-synchronous satellite with moderate multi-spectral resolution. It’s also known for ship surveillance with Automatic Identification System payload.
(Image credit: ISRO;)

23. Aqua


NASA’s multi-purpose satellite taps into Earth’s water cycle by measuring relative humidity (AIRS/AMSU), cloud height (CERES) and energy flux (AMSR-E). Its polar orbit delivers repeat coverage viewing the entire Earth’s surface every 1 to 2 days.
(Image Credit: NASA;)

24. Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observations (CALIPSO)

Cloud Profile NASA/JPL Research Articles: 820

CALIPSO graphs the vertical profiles of cloud structure using laser technology and a special sensor for cirrus cloud.
(Image Credit: NASA;)

25. China-Brazil Earth Resource Satellite (CBERS)

Land Use/Cover China & Brazil Research Articles: 760

China and Brazil unite in a joint quintuple mission to monitor everything from agriculture, environment, water pollution and urban planning in their respective countries.
(Image Credit: CBERS/INPE)

26. Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM)


Sculpted SRTM-30 terrain model of Earth using two radar antennas and interferometry. Onboard the space shuttle Endeavour, it only needed 11 days to accomplish this challenging feat.
(Image Credit: NASA;)
READ MORE: SRTM Shuttle Radar Topography Mission

27. IceSAT

Ice Thickness & Altimetry NASA/JPL Research Articles: 746

Chilled-out satellite that has made over 904 million measurements of the Earth’s surface using the first space-borne laser altimeter (GLAS) measuring everything from forest heights to ice thickness.
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech;)

28. Television Infrared Observation Satellites (TIROS)

Televised Weather NASA Research Articles: 724


1960-era low-Earth orbiting satellite for televising infrared weather observations. It was instrumental in sending early storm warnings.
(Image Credit: NASA;)

29. Joint Altimetry Satellite Oceanography Network (JASON)


Predecessor of TOPEX/Poseidon, JASON’s altimeter is responsible for mapping ocean floor bathymetry and rising sea levels for the Ocean Surface Topography Mission.
(Image Credit: NASA;)

30. CloudSAT


Almost like it has its head in the clouds, this satellite profiles their vertical billowing formation with radar. Because clouds influence weather and climate, this is key to understanding the atmospheric and hydrological cycles.
(Image Credit: NASA;)

31. Aura

(Image Credit: NASA;)

NASA satellite dedicated to uncovering air quality and climate health. 4 instruments (HIRDLS, MLS, OMI & TES) measure trace gases, temperature, and aerosols in the upper atmosphere.
(Image Credit: NASA;)


(Image copyright © Korean Aerospace Research Institute KARI;)

Also known as Arirang, this multispectral satellite provides 1-meter resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) images monitoring North Korean military activities and more.
(Image copyright © Korean Aerospace Research Institute KARI;)

33. Project for On-Board Autonomy (PROBA)


Micro, cube-looking satellite with 30-meter hyperspectral data. Using its dextrous viewing angles, PROBA had produced a world-renowned coarse global vegetation archive.
(Image Credit: ESA;)

34. Earth Observing-1 Mission (EO-1)


Propelled science and innovation through the validation of advanced instrumentation through NASA’s New Millennium Program (NMP). Its Hyperion sensor sees 220 spectral bands of wavelengths for better characterizing minerals and Earth features.
(Image Credit: NASA;)

35. RapidEye


RapidEye originated in Germany. It was bought by BlackBridge and now Planet. Despite several owners, this 5-satellite constellation still provides large swath, high resolution (5-meter) anywhere on Earth, at least daily.

36. Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP)


Paired active and passive sensors to measure fine-scale global soil moisture. Due to a sensor malfunction, it’s all passive similar to SMOS.
(Image Credit: NASA;)

37. Pleiades

Land Information Airbus Defence & Space   Research Articles: 250

2 nimble commercial satellites operating in the same orbit. Pleiades catches incredible detail (2-meter) and can scan the Earth in any direction.
(Image Courtesy of ESA/Airbus & Defense;)
READ MORE: Pleiades Satellite Constellation: Spot the Detail

38. Suomi

(Image Credit: Copyright © NOAA)

Polar-orbiter meteorology satellite known for short-term weather forecasting and its wide range of land, ocean, and atmospheric measurements. It has captured views of monstrous tornadoes and supercells.
(Image Credit: Copyright © NOAA)

39. CartoSAT

(Image Copyright © ISRO)

The Indian cartography series of commercial satellites collect land information with multispectral, panchromatic and stereo mapping capabilities.
(Image Copyright © ISRO)

40. GeoEye

(Image courtesy © 2017 DigitalGlobe;)

Google’s high-resolution (1.65-meter) imaging satellite is so sharp that ecologists have used it to track animal population. There’s no coincidence that it’s also used in Google Maps.
(Image courtesy © 2017 DigitalGlobe;)

41. Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS)

Magnetosphere NASA/JPL Research Articles: 167

This magnetosphere specializing satellite has a unique tetrahedral formation consisting of four identical spacecrafts to map the interaction between the sun and Earth’s magnetic field (magnetic reconnection).
(Image Credit: NASA;)

42. Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC)

Disaster Monitoring Constellation

DMC masters disaster monitoring with its highly responsive, humanitarian constellation. It consists of AISAT-1, BilSAT, NigeriaSAT, UK-DMC, Beijing-1, Deimos-1 and NigeriaSAT.

43. Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (POES)

Weather & Environment NOAA Research Articles: 83

NOAA’s polar-orbiting meteorological satellite has taken some of the mystery out of atmospheric phenomenons with high spatial and temporal resolution images.
(Image Credit: NOAA;)

44. Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA)

(Image Credit: NASA;)

Reigning monarch satellite of Mars. This interplanetary mission orbits the red planet. It has discovered ancient river beds on Martian surface with its elevation data.
(Image Credit: NASA;)

45. SciSAT

(Image Credit: Canadian Space Agency;)

SciSAT has a nightcrawler orbit creeping in the Earth’s shadows. It records the depletion of the ozone which can’t be captured by balloons, aircrafts or other orbiting satellites.
(Image Credit: Canadian Space Agency;)

46. SeaStar (Orbview-2)

(Image Credit: NASA;)

Ocean-surfing Sea-Viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor (SeaWIFS) is used by ocean biologists to quantify color change from chlorophyll produced by marine plants.
(Image Credit: NASA;)

47. QuickSCAT

(Image Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech;)

Surfers satellite of choice with its swift scatterometer calculations of surface sea winds and direction over ice-free oceans.
(Image Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech;)

48. SkySat

(Copyright © SkyBox Imaging. All rights reserved.)

The type of gadget James Bond uses to spy on super-villains.This commercial satellite is capable of capturing video footage and sub-meter multispectral images.
(Copyright © SkyBox Imaging. All rights reserved.)


(Image Credit: NASA/JPL)

The solar-monitoring ACRIMSAT performed experimental studies for Total Solar Irradiance. It recorded a 0.1% reduction in the solar intensity caused by the Venus shadow in 2004.
(Image Credit: NASA/JPL)

50. Megha-Tropique

Water Cycle European Space Agency   Research Articles: 0

This weather satellite’s purpose is to cruise the tropics to better understand the global water cycle and climate change (Global Energy and Water Cycle Experiment – GEWEX)
(Image Credit: ESA;)


There are hundreds of remote sensing uses and applications that are being tied into the world we live in. For example, weather, navigation, gravity, climate change and the magnetosphere are best understood from space. As each meticulously-planned space mission is launched, we can cover that much more ground. What Earth observation satellites did we miss?

Let us know with a comment below.