ENVU9EO: Earth Observation

Co-ordinator: Dr Peter Hunter

Prerequisites: GEOU9IS

Module Description

The ability to observe the Earth from satellites has revolutionized the way we monitor the environment and our understanding of global planetary change.  Satellite data have become absolutely essential to land, ocean and atmospheric science because they provide insights into the dynamics of the Earth system that we simply could not obtain through other means.  Beyond immediate scientific applications, satellite data are also used to help coordinate responses to natural and humanitarian disasters, to help police areas protected for conservation, to predict the spread of infectious diseases and to combat the illegal drug trade.  It is perhaps not surprising therefore that the space sector is growing rapidly and the UK government has described satellite data as one of the “eight great technologies” supporting UK science and industry.  This module will provide students with an introduction to Earth observation science from its underlying physical principles to the array of downstream applications in science and industry.  Students will learn how to access, process and analyze satellite data and apply them to real world problems thereby equipping vital skills for the modern job market.  

Module Objectives

The module is broadly divided into two interlinked parts: the first half of the module “Principles of Remote Sensing” will focus on the underlying theory and physical principles, while the second half “Frontiers in Earth observation” introduces students to a range of applications of Earth observation.  The module commences with an overview of Earth observation and the various uses of data provided by satellites and other aerial platforms in the environmental sciences.  Subsequent sessions cover the fundamental principles of remote sensing in the optical and microwave domains during which students develop an understanding of the nature of electromagnetic radiation, its properties and interaction with matter.  This will lead on to discussions on the radiative transfer processes that influence the propagation of solar radiation through the atmosphere and its physical interaction with the Earth’s surface.  In later sessions students will develop familiarity with different remote sensing platforms, sensors and data types and gain practical experience in basic data processing techniques and approaches for validating observations made from space.

This second part of the module will move on to consider key applications of Earth observation for environmental monitoring and assessment at different spatial and temporal scales.  The opening session explores the breadth of operational scientific and commercial services that are now built upon EO data and their societal value.  In subsequent sessions more detailed consideration is given to key EO thematic areas including: (i) land; (ii) lakes and oceans; (iii) cryosphere; (iv) atmosphere and climate; and (v) natural disasters.  The penultimate session considers future advances in EO (e.g., Copernicus) and the impact they will have on science and society.  The module will conclude with an invited lecture (tbc) on the contribution of remote sensing to environmental regulation and governance as well as discussions on related career opportunities.

The objectives of the module are:

  • to provide students with an understanding of the physical principles behind observations made from satellites and aircraft in the optical and microwave domains;
  • to equip students with an appreciation of EO applications in key thematic areas for environmental monitoring and assessment including (i) land; (ii) lakes and oceans; (iii) cryosphere; (iv) atmosphere and climate; and (v) natural disasters;
  • to provide students with knowledge of potential industrial and commercial uses of EO data and experience in designing and marketing EO-based data products and services;
  • to provide students with practical experience in appropriate methods for accessing, processing, analysing and visualising EO data including programmatical approaches for handling big datasets;
  • to facilitate the development of key generic skills in critical reasoning, problem solving, communication, numeracy and data analysis, and scientific writing.

Details of Learning and Teaching Activities

The module will be largely taught using a flipped classroom approach using a combination of short, pre-recorded online video lectures supported by student-led research prior to weekly interactive workshops during which students will actively participate in class/group discussions and complete short data analysis and problem solving tasks.  These sessions will be accompanied by formal lab-based practical sessions and a  field-based practical session.  This constitutes approximately 40 h of scheduled learning activities over the duration of the module (including online videos).

Core Learning Outcomes

On completion of the module successful students can be expected to:

  • identify the main types of EO platforms, sensors and data products, their respective specifications and suitability for different applications;
  • provide a basic explanation of the fundamental physical principles behind EO measurements made in the optical and microwave domains and how these can convey information about Earth surface properties;
  • demonstrate knowledge of a range of common EO applications and provide an in-depth, critical appraisal of current EO applications in a specific thematic area;
  • demonstrate an appreciation of expected future developments in the field, particularly with reference to the role of new space- and ground-segment technologies in driving research and innovation across sectors;
  • access, manage, processes, analyse and visualise EO data, perform simple validation exercises and critically evaluate the uncertainties associated with the derived products.


Total Study Time 200 hours
Scheduled Learning & Teaching 40 hours: lectures, seminars, practical classes and workshops, external visits, scheduled on-line discussions or similar
Guided Independent Study 160 hours: both directed learning undertaken in student's own time, and their own self-directed study for assessment
Placements 0 hours


An example of the typical assessment methods for ENVU9EO is provided below.  Please note that the coursework assignments might change from year to year depending e.g. on class sizes and availability of resources.

  1. Online short answer class test (10%). This will assess the students’ understanding of the fundamental principles of remote sensing including relevant physical underpinning, technical specifications of platforms, sensors and data products and the understanding of the advantages and limitations of EO.
  1. Practical report on satellite data analysis (2,000 words; 30%).  This will assess the students’ data analysis and report writing skills, while also requiring them to demonstrate an understanding of a specific application of EO.
  1. Commercial tender for EO services (2,500 words; 40%).  This assessment is loosely based on the European Commission’s Copernicus Masters competition, which challenges teams to develop proposals for commercial services based on EO data.  Students will work collaboratively in small teams to develop a coherent business plan for an EO-based service of societal benefit.  Each student will subsequently submit an individual contract tender based upon the group work.  It will assess the students’ technical understanding and awareness of possible commercial applications of EO as well as their problem-solving, report writing and team working skills.
  1. Group presentation (10 min group presentation; 20%).  Students will present a “Dragon’s Den” style pitch based on their proposed commercial tender for an EO service.  This will assess the students’ understanding of EO-based applications and their ability to communicate complex concepts concisely via oral presentations.
Coursework 100%
Examination 0%
Practical 0%
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