An Earth observation satellite or Earth remote sensing satellite is a satellite used or designed for Earth observation (EO) from orbit, including spy satellites and similar ones intended for non-military uses such as environmental monitoring, meteorology, cartography and others. The most common type are Earth imaging satellites, that take satellite images, analogous to aerial photographs; some EO satellites may perform remote sensing without forming pictures, such as in GNSS radio occultation.
The first occurrence of satellite remote sensing can be dated to the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. Sputnik 1 sent back radio signals, which scientists used to study the ionosphere.
NASA launched the first American satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958. The information sent back from its radiation detector led to the discovery of the Earth's Van Allen radiation belts. The TIROS-1 spacecraft, launched on April 1, 1960 as part of NASA's Television Infrared Observation Satellite (TIROS) program, sent back the first television footage of weather patterns to be taken from space.
As of 2008, more than 150 Earth observation satellites were in orbit, recording data with both passive and active sensors and acquiring more than 10 terabits of data daily.
Most Earth observation satellites carry instruments that should be operated at a relatively low altitude. Altitudes below 500-600 kilometers are in general avoided, though, because of the significant air-drag at such low altitudes making frequent orbit reboost maneuvres necessary. The Earth observation satellites ERS-1, ERS-2 and Envisat of European Space Agency as well as the MetOp spacecraft of EUMETSAT are all operated at altitudes of about 800 km. The Proba-1, Proba-2 and SMOS spacecraft of European Space Agency are observing the Earth from an altitude of about 700 km. The Earth observation satellites of UAE, DubaiSat-1 & DubaiSat-2 are also placed in Low Earth Orbits (LEO) orbits and providing satellite imagery of various parts of the Earth.
To get (nearly) global coverage with a low orbit it must be a polar orbit or nearly so. A low orbit will have an orbital period of roughly 100 minutes and the Earth will rotate around its polar axis with about 25° between successive orbits, with the result that the ground track is shifted towards west with these 25° in longitude. Most are in Sun-synchronous orbits.
Spacecraft carrying instruments for which an altitude of 36000 km is suitable sometimes use a geostationary orbit. Such an orbit allows uninterrupted coverage of more than 1/3 of the Earth. Three geostationary spacecraft at longitudes separated with 120° can cover the whole Earth except the extreme polar regions. This type of orbit is mainly used for meteorological satellites.