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Unlocking the Spectrum: Hyperspectral Satellites and Their Remarkable Applications

In the vast realm of Earth observation, satellites have become indispensable tools for collecting invaluable data about our planet. The Earth observation sector continues to evolve at a fast pace. With rapidly falling costs, reductions in risk, and new launch technologies, there has been a surge of new satellites and capabilities entering the commercial market.

Multiple low-cost satellite constellations, both optical and synthetic aperture radar, are being launched to support data collection at high frequency; and data analytics companies aiming to take this data and develop information solutions.

Most of these new constellations are focusing on the visible channels — red, green, blue — with perhaps a band or two in the near-infrared (NIR) to support vegetation monitoring and land-use classifications. Few of them are having Hyperspectral sensors that collect image data in hundreds of contiguous narrow spectral bands and can provide detailed information about target spatial and spectral patterns.

Hyperspectral imaging has emerged as a revolutionary technology, enabling us to perceive the world in unprecedented detail. This article explores hyperspectral satellites and the diverse range of applications that benefit from their extraordinary capabilities.


Understanding Hyperspectral Imaging

At its core, hyperspectral imaging is an advanced technique that goes beyond the capabilities of traditional multispectral imaging. While multispectral satellites capture data in a few broad spectral bands, hyperspectral satellites operate on an entirely different level. They capture data across hundreds or even thousands of narrow and contiguous spectral bands, creating a hyperspectral cube of data.

Imagine a rainbow, where each pixel represents a unique wavelength in the electromagnetic spectrum. Hyperspectral satellites capture not just a few colors of the rainbow but every single shade in between, allowing for a level of spectral analysis that was once inconceivable.

Spectroscopy technology or spectrometry deals with the measurement of a specific spectrum for identification of matters. It is a key analytical method used to investigate material composition and related processes through the study of the interaction of light with matter. The energy is absorbed by the matter, creating an excited state. The interaction creates some form of electromagnetic waves. By using a spectrometer, one can determine the level of excitement in the matter’s atoms to determine what kind of material it is. Determining composition remotely, without physical contact, is one of the most valuable capabilities of spectroscopy.

Developments in Hyperspectral Sensing | SpringerLink

An imaging system converts the visual characteristics of an object, such as a physical scene or the interior structure of an object, into digital signals and creates digitally encoded representations that are processed by a processor or computer and made output as a digital image. Imaging systems typically consist of a camera, imaging lens, along with an illumination source. Depending on the system setup, an imaging system can allow observed objects to be magnified or enhanced to ease the viewing or inspection of small or unclear objects. Computers are becoming more and more powerful with increasing capacities for running programs of any kind especially digital imaging software.


The combination of spectroscopy technology and the modern imaging system is referred to as imaging spectrometry, now also called hyperspectral imaging. It could measure a spectrum for every element (or pixel) in an image. This provides a revolutionary way of observing the earth and other planets by collecting information of each pixel in the field of view across the electromagnetic spectrum.


A hyperspectral imager operating in the solar reflected spectrum senses objects in the field of view in detail spectrally and spatially. Molecules and particles of the land, water, and atmosphere environments interact with solar energy in the 400–2500 nm spectral region through absorption, reflection, and scattering processes. These spectral measurements are used to determine constituent composition through the physics and chemistry of spectroscopy for scientific research and applications over the regional scale of the image.

The main advantage to hyperspectral imaging is that, because an entire spectrum is acquired for each pixel of the acquired imagery, an operator needs no prior knowledge of the sample, and postprocessing allows all available information from the dataset to be exploited. Hyperspectral imaging can also take advantage of the spatial relationships among the different spectra in a neighborhood, allowing more elaborate spectral-spatial models for a more accurate segmentation and classification of the image

HSI systems normally operate from within the visible spectrum of light – between 390-700 nanometres (nm) – up to a point in the long-wavelength (infrared) at 15,000 nm. Although commercial sensors are available for the entire range, they tend to be comparatively bulky and include moving parts unsuitable for use in the microgravity of space.

Almost all the spaceborne hyperspectral imagers use 2-D area detector arrays and operate in pushbroom operating mode. As shown in the figure, it images an entire line of ground sampling cells in the cross-track direction, whereas an aircraft or spacecraft provides the forward scan in along-track direction. The 1-D image of the cross-track line, formed on the spectrometer slit, is then dispersed onto the 2-D detector array, which provides spectral information along one axis and spatial information along the other. This architecture effectively integrates as many individual spectrometers as there are ground sampling cells in the cross-track line into a single instrument.

Fig. 3. - Example of the concept of a dispersive elements based hyperspectral imager.

The advantages of a dispersive element based hyperspectral imager that operates in the pushbroom mode are as follows.

  1. No moving parts.
  2. Congruence spatial images.
  3. Longer integration time for each ground sampling cell, because each of them is sensed simultaneously by a row elements of the 2-D detector array (e.g., rows A, B, C,…, G in Fig. ) instead of one after another, which omits the time sharing scanning of all the ground sampling cells in a cross-track line. Longer integration time means more photos are collected and results in higher signal-to-noise ratio (SNR).

The disadvantages of a pushbroom hyperspectral imager are as follows.

  1. Complex optical design and complex focal plane.
  2. Swath width is constrained by the available number of pixels of the 2-D detector array in the spatial direction.
  3. Complex calibration.
  4. There are both spectral distortion (also referred to as smile) and spatial distortion (also referred to as keystone). The hyperspectral data collected by a pushbroom hyperspectral imager need to be sufficiently corrected for smile and keystone distortion before being distributing to users for downstream applications

Introduction to Hyperspectral Satellite Imagery: A Beginner’s Guide

The Power of Spectral Detail

The real magic of hyperspectral imaging lies in its ability to reveal intricate details about the composition and characteristics of objects and materials. Each material on Earth interacts with light in a unique way, producing a spectral signature that is akin to a fingerprint. By examining these signatures across a multitude of wavelengths, scientists and researchers gain access to a wealth of information.

  • A primary advantage of hyperspectral remote sensing image data is capability to discriminate, classify, identify as well as quantify materials present in the image. Absorption and emission bands of given substances often occur within very narrow bandwidths. This allow high-resolution, hyperspectral sensors to distinguish the properties of the substances to a finer degree than an ordinary broadband sensor. The intensity of this energy can be measured at various wavelengths. Many objects and substances have spectral characteristics that are unique and a unique spectral “signature” allows them to be identified through various spectral analyses. The target spectral signatures are also different from the background signature.
  • Passive spectral sensors have the potential for detecting and characterizing camouflaged and concealed targets in clutter. By analyzing the multiple spectrum bands of HSI it is possible to detect concealed targets by keying on their reflectance differences at non-visual wavelengths.
  • It also allows one to detect targets of interest with sizes smaller than the pixel resolution (sub pixel target detection), and abundance estimation, which allows one to detect concentrations of different signature spectra present in pixels.

Analysts can compare collected sensor data with libraries of known material signatures, enabling classification. Software featuring these techniques and capabilities is already available in the commercial sector from companies such as Harris Geospatial, Hexagon Geospatial, and BAE Systems.

Hyperspectral Satellite Applications

Precision Agriculture

In agriculture, hyperspectral satellites are transforming the way crops are managed. By analyzing the spectral signatures of crops, farmers can assess plant health, detect nutrient deficiencies, and identify pest infestations. This level of insight allows for precise interventions, reducing the need for excessive pesticide and fertilizer use while optimizing crop yields.

Environmental Monitoring

Hyperspectral satellites are essential tools for monitoring Earth’s environment. They enable the detection of subtle changes in ecosystems, aiding in the preservation of natural habitats and the identification of environmental threats. From tracking deforestation to monitoring water quality in lakes and rivers, hyperspectral data contributes significantly to our understanding of the environment.

Mineral Exploration

In the field of geology and mining, hyperspectral imaging is a game-changer. It can detect the unique spectral signatures of minerals, making it invaluable for mineral exploration. By analyzing hyperspectral data, geologists can identify potential mining sites and assess the quality of mineral deposits with unparalleled accuracy.

Disaster Management

Hyperspectral satellites play a crucial role in disaster management and response. They can assess the extent of natural disasters like wildfires, hurricanes, and floods. The detailed spectral data they provide aids in planning and executing effective disaster relief efforts.

Urban Planning

In urban planning, hyperspectral imaging helps cities make informed decisions about land use and development. It can monitor urban sprawl, analyze pollution sources, and assess the condition of infrastructure. This information is vital for creating sustainable and resilient cities.


The forestry industry benefits greatly from hyperspectral data. These satellites can help assess the health of forests, detect disease outbreaks, and estimate timber volume accurately. This knowledge promotes sustainable forestry practices.

Military and Defense

Hyperspectral satellites have found a multitude of applications in the military and defense sectors, enhancing national security and aiding strategic decision-making. The extraordinary spectral detail provided by these satellites enables defense forces to detect, analyze, and respond to various threats and challenges with remarkable precision. Here, we delve into the diverse military and defense applications of hyperspectral satellites:

Hyperspectral imaging has emerged as an invaluable asset in military applications, providing unprecedented capabilities to detect, identify, and locate concealed or camouflaged targets across various terrains and environments. Let’s explore the remarkable military applications of hyperspectral imaging technology:

Surveillance and Reconnaissance

Hyperspectral satellites provide an advantage in surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Their ability to detect subtle changes in the environment and identify anomalies makes them invaluable for monitoring activities in various terrains and conditions:

  • Night Vision: Some hyperspectral satellites can operate in low-light or nighttime conditions. This is particularly useful for tracking enemy movements during nocturnal operations.
  • Terrain Analysis: Hyperspectral data helps identify changes in terrain, which can be essential for military planning and navigation. It can also reveal the presence of hidden tunnels or bunkers.

Target Detection

One of the primary uses of hyperspectral imaging in defense is target detection. This technology can identify specific materials or substances associated with military threats, even when they are camouflaged or hidden. Here are some scenarios where hyperspectral satellites excel:

  • Concealed Weapon Detection: Hyperspectral data can reveal the unique spectral signatures of firearms, explosives, and chemical agents. This capability is vital for border security and counter-terrorism operations.
  • Camouflage Detection: Camouflaging is a tried-and-true military tactic aimed at reducing or delaying the detection of targets by blending them with their surroundings. Hyperspectral satellites excel in locating and tracking camouflaged military targets, including missile launch sites and underground facilities designed for testing nuclear weapons.

Submarine and Underwater Mine Detection

In the realm of naval warfare, hyperspectral imaging proves its worth by aiding in the detection of submarines and underwater mines, particularly in shallow waters. The ability to discern spectral signatures beneath the water’s surface is instrumental in enhancing maritime security and safeguarding critical sea lanes.

Target Composition Analysis

Hyperspectral sensors possess the remarkable capacity to analyze the actual composition of objects. This capability enables the discrimination between real military assets and decoys, a task where hyperspectral imaging excels. For example, it can distinguish between the electromagnetic signatures of a wooden decoy and an actual missile launcher.

Identification of Enrichment Facilities

Enrichment facilities often blend into the visual landscape, making positive identification challenging through conventional imagery. Hyperspectral imaging comes to the rescue by offering a unique perspective that can differentiate these facilities from ordinary industrial buildings. Moreover, these facilities are often concealed or buried, making them even more challenging to detect without hyperspectral capabilities.

Counter-IED Operations

Hyperspectral imaging has proven its effectiveness in identifying buried roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). By analyzing disturbed earth using land-based hyperspectral imagery, it is possible to detect the presence of these deadly threats, enhancing the safety of military personnel.

Counter-Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Missions

In the context of countering weapons of mass destruction, hyperspectral imaging plays a pivotal role. It can be employed to detect nuclear and chemical weapons production facilities, as well as locate underground tunnels and bunkers housing these strategic assets. The superior spectral resolution of hyperspectral sensors enables the identification of stealth aircraft, even when coated to evade traditional radar.

Chemical Agent Detection

Hyperspectral sensors, such as those capable of detecting methane in the atmosphere, offer the potential to identify airborne chemical agents. This capability enhances situational awareness and provides early warning in the event of chemical attacks.

While hyperspectral imaging technology offers exceptional advantages in military applications, it is essential to acknowledge its sensitivity to environmental conditions, such as cloud cover and fog. To address this, hyperspectral sensors can be integrated with other sensor technologies to create comprehensive counter-stealth solutions.

In summary, hyperspectral imaging is revolutionizing military operations by enhancing detection, identification, and surveillance capabilities across land, air, and sea domains. Its ability to unveil hidden and camouflaged targets makes it an indispensable tool for modern defense and security strategies, ensuring the safety and effectiveness of military missions.

Environmental Intelligence

Environmental factors often play a crucial role in military operations. Hyperspectral satellites provide insights into these factors, enhancing strategic decision-making:

  • Weather Forecasting: Hyperspectral data can improve weather forecasting accuracy, which is critical for planning military operations, especially in remote or hostile regions.
  • Chemical and Biological Threat Detection: Hyperspectral sensors can identify the release of hazardous chemicals or biological agents, enabling rapid responses to potential threats.

Remote Sensing for Strategic Planning

Hyperspectral satellites contribute significantly to strategic planning and resource allocation:

  • Urban Planning: In urban warfare scenarios, hyperspectral data can aid in assessing the layout of cities, identifying potential defensive positions, and analyzing infrastructure conditions.
  • Resource Management: Hyperspectral data helps evaluate the availability of natural resources in strategic areas, aiding in logistics and resource allocation.

Ballistic Missile Defense

In the context of ballistic missile defense systems, hyperspectral satellites play a critical role:

  • Launch Detection: Hyperspectral sensors can detect the infrared signatures of ballistic missile launches, providing early warning capabilities to intercept incoming threats.
  • Discrimination: Hyperspectral data helps discriminate between the body of the missile and the rocket plumes during flight, allowing for more precise targeting.

Signature Analysis

Hyperspectral imaging enables signature analysis, which involves studying the unique spectral signatures of various materials and objects. This analysis can be applied in several ways:

  • Damage Assessment: After an attack, hyperspectral data can be used to assess the extent of damage to military installations or critical infrastructure.
  • Illumination Analysis: By studying the spectral characteristics of light sources, such as vehicle headlights or artificial lighting in hostile areas, hyperspectral data can help identify potential threats or activities.

Challenges and Constraints in Hyperspectral Imaging (HSI)

Hyperspectral Imaging (HSI) is a powerful tool for Earth observation, environmental monitoring, and defense applications. However, it is not without its limitations. Understanding these challenges is crucial for harnessing the full potential of HSI technology. Here, we delve into some of the key limitations of HSI:

1. Spatial Resolution vs. Spectral Resolution Trade-Off

One inherent limitation of HSI is the trade-off between spatial resolution and spectral resolution. While HSI provides exceptional spectral detail, its spatial resolutions are often coarser compared to panchromatic imagery. This trade-off is due to the need to capture a wide range of spectral bands, leading to a compromise in spatial clarity. Panchromatic High-Resolution Imagery (HRI) can complement HSI by offering finer spatial resolution, enhancing target identification and visualization.

2. Sensitivity to Atmospheric Conditions

HSI relies on passive sensing, receiving reflected light from Earth’s surfaces. Unfortunately, this sensitivity to atmospheric conditions can hinder its effectiveness, particularly in regions prone to cloud cover and fog, such as tropical environments. Gases like water vapor and oxygen can differentially attenuate and alter the reflected energy spectrum, impacting the accuracy of target characterization.

3. Power Requirements and Image Swath

Achieving a sufficient ground resolution across a broad bandwidth range demands significant power. This can lead to a reduced image swath, limiting the revisit times of a single satellite. To overcome this limitation, satellite constellations may be necessary, but this approach comes with added costs. Stable satellite platforms are essential for HSI, making it challenging to implement on lower-cost, small satellite designs, although ongoing exploration in this area is underway. Despite potential limitations in ground resolution, HSI can still provide valuable insights.

4. Data Volume and Processing Power

HSI generates vast amounts of data due to its fine spectral detail. As a rule of thumb, an hour of hyperspectral footage can produce around 1 terabyte of data. Moreover, the data requires significant processing at the point of collection to be practical. Transmitting this data to the ground segment via radio frequencies remains a challenge, and the current solution often involves storing the data and sending it back to Earth for processing. This limitation impacts the ability to responsively target the sensor during its mission, making HSI less suitable for time-sensitive operations.

5. Power Supply and Heat Management

Infrared imaging systems, including hyperspectral imagers, pose challenges related to power supply and heat management. Beyond a certain wavelength, the heat generated by electronics can distort the sensor’s collected information. In the vacuum of space, heat removal is primarily achieved through radiation, necessitating costly active-cooling systems and heat tanks. Advances in solar technology can increase energy generation, but power supply remains a limitation, particularly for smaller satellites with limited solar panels.

Recent Hyperspectral Satellites Revolutionizing Defense and Beyond

The field of hyperspectral imaging has seen a surge in technological advancements, leading to the development of several recent hyperspectral satellites. These cutting-edge satellites are not only transforming military and defense applications but also making significant contributions to various other sectors. Here, we explore some of the latest hyperspectral satellites that are shaping our ability to perceive the world in unprecedented detail.

1. WorldView Legion

Maxar Technologies, a leading provider of Earth intelligence solutions, launched the WorldView Legion constellation in 2021. While primarily designed for commercial Earth observation, this constellation includes hyperspectral capabilities that have applications extending into the military and defense realms.

Key Features:

  • High revisit rates and rapid tasking capabilities for quick response to evolving situations.
  • Enhanced spectral and spatial resolution for precise target identification and analysis.
  • An extensive range of spectral bands, including hyperspectral data, for a comprehensive view of Earth’s surface.

2. Environmental Mapping and Analysis Program (EnMAP)

EnMAP is a German hyperspectral satellite mission designed for environmental monitoring and scientific research. Although primarily focused on environmental applications, its data have proven valuable in defense and security contexts.

Key Features:

  • High spectral resolution, with 242 spectral channels covering a broad spectral range.
  • Applications include vegetation monitoring, mineral identification, and land cover analysis, which can aid military operations in various ways.

3. PRISMA (PRecursore IperSpettrale della Missione Applicativa)

PRISMA is an Italian Earth observation satellite launched in 2019, primarily dedicated to hyperspectral imaging. Its advanced capabilities offer a multitude of applications, including military and defense.

Key Features:

  • Hyperspectral data with high spectral and spatial resolution, allowing for precise material identification and environmental analysis.
  • Applications encompass mineral exploration, agriculture, and environmental monitoring, all of which can indirectly support defense operations.

4. HysIS (Hyperspectral Imaging Satellite)

Launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in 2018, HysIS is India’s first dedicated hyperspectral imaging satellite. While its primary focus is on Earth observation for civilian purposes, its applications have broader implications.

Key Features:

  • Delivers hyperspectral data across a wide range of spectral bands, aiding in mineral exploration, agriculture, and forestry management.
  • Possesses the potential to support defense applications such as camouflage detection and target identification.

5. Hyperspectral Infrared Imager (HyspIRI)

While not a satellite in itself, the Hyperspectral Infrared Imager (HyspIRI) mission concept represents a significant development in hyperspectral capabilities. Proposed by NASA, HyspIRI aims to combine thermal and hyperspectral imagery for a comprehensive understanding of Earth’s surface.

Key Features:

  • Encompasses a broad spectral range, including thermal infrared, which is crucial for detecting heat signatures associated with military targets.
  • Potential military applications include improved target discrimination and thermal imaging.

6. Reconfigurable Hyperspectral Imaging Spectrometer (ReHIS)

Under development by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), the ReHIS is an example of cutting-edge technology that aims to provide hyperspectral imaging capabilities on-demand for military applications.

Key Features:

  • Designed to be mounted on small, agile platforms such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
  • Promises rapid reconfigurability, allowing the sensor to adapt to different spectral bands and mission requirements.

These recent hyperspectral satellites, along with ongoing research and development efforts, are revolutionizing Earth observation and military capabilities. Their high spectral resolution, advanced data analysis, and flexible applications are expanding our ability to monitor the environment, detect threats, and support national security efforts in increasingly sophisticated ways. As technology continues to advance, the potential for hyperspectral satellites in defense and beyond remains boundless.

Advancements in Hyperspectral Technology

Hyperspectral satellites continue to advance rapidly. Smaller and more cost-effective satellites are being launched, making hyperspectral data more accessible.

The new generation of sensors, are small, lightweight solid-state sensors weighing less than a few hundred grams, which makes them more practical for use in microsatellites. These new designs facilitate simplified production, which enables mass production and reduced costs. The trade-off is that these newer sensors have a smaller spectral range and are often less sensitive, which at present would limit their usefulness when based on satellites.

Moreover, machine learning and artificial intelligence are being employed to analyze the immense volumes of hyperspectral data efficiently.


Hyperspectral satellites have ushered in a new era of Earth observation, allowing us to perceive our planet in unprecedented detail. Their applications span agriculture, environmental monitoring, mineral exploration, disaster management, urban planning, forestry, and defense.

While hyperspectral imaging offers unparalleled capabilities in spectral analysis and target identification, it is essential to acknowledge and address its limitations. Balancing spatial and spectral resolutions, mitigating atmospheric influences, optimizing power requirements, managing data volumes, and improving heat dissipation are ongoing challenges. Overcoming these constraints will be crucial for expanding the commercial and defense applications of hyperspectral imaging and unlocking its full potential in various domains.

As technology continues to evolve and our understanding of hyperspectral data deepens, the possibilities for innovation and discovery are limitless. In the pursuit of a more sustainable and informed world, hyperspectral satellites are guiding the way.










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