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Course introduction

Earth Observation from Space introduction
Welcome to the European Space Agency Earth Observation from Space– the Optical View Massive Open Online Course. ESA is developing a fleet of satellite to observe and monitor the Earth. So data processed and distributed from those satellites are freely available for science use, services, also for decision-makers. We are in the midst of a sensing revolution. We never had so much data. It tells us a lot of things about the Earth that we didn’t know. It provides new insight, not only for science but also for applications, serving our society, understanding how the Earth operate as a system, and also delivering the new generation of information services.
This course is about optical remote sensing. That means looking at satellite data between the visible and the short-wave infrared. It’s this part of the spectrum that encompasses the living bit of the Earth’s surface, the bits that are growing– the plants, the phytoplankton, the agriculture, and the forest. Technology for acquiring image data at higher and higher spatial and temporal resolution, finer and finer detail, has dramatically improved over the past decades. And that’s enabled remote sensing to explore and understand parts of the Earth’s system to measure change land use, agricultural applications, forest applications, ocean applications. The optical domain is very natural. People can understand it’s going from the fishery management to food security, energy management.
This is really where the light is meeting the light. So we will have incredible insight from space into how our planet is a living organism, about the carbon cycle, about phytoplankton in the ocean and vegetation on the land, and how these two interact as a coupled Earth system.
Now you’ve got the capability to collect data, digitally and almost instantaneously transmit it to the Earth. Optical Earth observation technology has enabled new applications like urban planning, monitoring of vehicles, mapping of building heights in urban environments like this, monitoring humanitarian movements, or looking at detailed changes in the environment that might affect the wildlife.
What is really unique about Earth’s observation is that it touches many disciplines. And it’s a kind of integrator around one common objective, which is understanding our planet. You get a global picture but also the level of details but also to use this information to support decision-making. The simple objective of this course is to de-mystify the use of Earth observation data. We will guide you along this five weeks of this course, through the generation of the imagery, we will explain to you the data distributed, how they can be accessed, and how they can be handled. You can learn at your own pace.
And also, you will have the opportunities to enhance in the data, how to practically work with the data, and derive relevant information from 40 years of imaging the Earth. We look forward to you joining this course. And we sincerely hope that you will understand how we can derive really useful information from satellite data.

Welcome to ‘Earth Observation From Space: The Optical View’. In this course, we will introduce you to the wide range of applications of satellite Earth observation technology. We will focus in particular on the use of data acquired by satellite sensors which use visible light and near infrared radiation – otherwise known as ‘optical’ Earth observation.

Modern optical sensors can capture both qualitative imagery and quantitative information, by using a range of different wavebands of light. That means the imagery is often in a familiar ‘photographic’ form, showing the Earth from the unique and powerful perspective of space. But it can also contain additional information which helps scientists, researchers and decision-makers to understand more about the natural and man-made processes occurring on Earth.

Optical Earth Observation (EO) is particularly important for observing the ‘living planet’, as the wavebands of light it uses are also those used in photosynthesis. As the resolution of new satellite sensors increases, we can also use this technology for monitoring our own impact on the Earth and the movements of people around the planet.

This course is suitable for anyone interested in this subject, whether coming to it for the first time, or with some prior knowledge. However, it is also intended to be an informal follow-up to the ESA Monitoring Climate from Space course which has run previously on FutureLearn, and so will not overlap too much with the topics in that course. While the previous course looked specifically at climate monitoring and some of the fundamental physics and instrument technologies of Earth observation, this course will focus in-depth on optical EO data and its applications in a wide range of areas.

For those of you who have not taken the previous Climate course, there will be future opportunities to do so, and you can register your interest here.

Throughout the course, the terms ‘Earth observation’ and ‘remote sensing’ are often used interchangeably. The term ‘remote sensing’ refers to the use of electromagnetic radiation (including visible light), emitted or reflected by the Earth, and specialised instruments on board EO satellites, to collect a range of types of data and imagery, at a local and global scale, as they orbit around the Earth. This course focuses specifically on Earth observation from space, and therefore relates to satellite remote sensing rather than similar forms of remote sensing often conducted from aircraft or sometimes ground-based sensors.

Also, don’t forget that the word ‘data’ in the context of satellite EO refers to optical imagery and photography, as well as quantitative data. A full glossary of terms used in this course is provided in Step 1.4, which you can refer back to at any time during the course.

You will also have an opportunity to directly interact with certain types of EO datasets via online tools during the course, and there is more on this in the next step.

The main topic videos are the backbone of this course, and you can re-watch them as much as you need to. For further context and more detailed explanations, you can also read the introductory text provided with each video, explore the optional ‘further reading’ links, and look in-depth at information about the data, imagery and satellites provided in each topic.

The course videos begin with Topic 1a in step 1.5. Before that, over the next few steps we have provided a bit more information about the course educators and how to get the most out of this course.

The course will be released on a week by week basis on this occasion, with new content becoming available on the Monday of each week. Once a week has started though, all previous material will remain available, and you will be able to go back through the course or catch-up in your own time.

In Week 1, lead educator Dr Mat Disney, and Professor Martin Wooster will provide an overview of the basic concepts of Optical EO. Later in the course, we will hear from a wider range of other experts about specific applications enabled by this data.

Please note: As this is a re-run of the course, there will be limited advisability of our academics for feedback. Instead, lead educator feedback and responses from the previous run will be included in each end of week educator feedback & answers page.

We hope you enjoy the course.


This course has been designed and produced for ESA by Imperative Space. The producers would like to thank all of the academics, experts and institutions who have contributed to and supported production of the course. This includes the universities and research centres to which our onscreen experts are affiliated, along with UCL, King’s College London, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Kew Gardens, WWF Living Planet Centre, Goonhilly Earth Station, Satellite Applications Catapult, Planet Labs and National Centre for Earth Observation, for the use of filming locations and their additional assistance.

All ESA and NASA imagery and animations used throughout this course are used courtesy of ESA and NASA.

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Earth Observation from Space: the Optical View

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