NASA’s Surface Biology and Geology Designated Observable: A Perspective on Surface Imaging Algorithms

Recent and upcoming imaging spectroscopy Earth Observation satellite missions are ushering in a new paradigm in remote sensing and terrestrial ecosystem science

Applications of imaging spectroscopy in terrestrial ecosystem science are broad, from the study of critical ecosystems to coastal zone monitoring and precision agriculture. This example shows the information content contained in spectral images in contrast to standard visible imagery.

[Reprinted under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) from Cawse-Nicholson, D. et al. “NASA’s Surface Biology and Geology Designated Observable: A Perspective on Surface Imaging Algorithms.” Remote Sensing of Environment 257, 112349 (2021). DOI:10.1016/j.rse.2021.112349]

The Science

Remote sensing has become a critically important tool for researchers who study Earth’s ecosystems and minerals. Imaging spectroscopy—or the measurement of a many, continuous spectral channels across visible and nonvisible wavelengths—and thermal infrared imagery are essential for inferring plant health, ecosystem function, biodiversity, and solid Earth research. Reviewing the requirements of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Surface Biology and Geology (SBG) Designated Observable, which is a proposed global imaging spectroscopy and thermal infrared Earth Observing satellite, over 130 scientists studied the current state of imaging spectroscopy algorithms and state-of-the-art methods for remote sensing of surface, terrestrial, and aquatic ecosystems.

The Impact

Regular monitoring of the state, functioning, and biodiversity of Earth’s terrestrial, freshwater, and coastal aquatic ecosystems is essential for understanding the impacts of severe weather, disturbance, and climate change on natural resources, potential feedbacks to climate and the management of resources, and defining policy. Remote sensing technologies are essential for large-scale monitoring, but current satellite platforms are insufficient to fill this need. The SBG Designated Observable, a novel combination of high–spatial resolution spectral and thermal infrared imagery, is uniquely designed to address these challenges and provide key observations for studying hydrological, ecological, weather, climate, and solid earth dynamics.


Monitoring Earth’s diverse natural resources and managed ecosystems is a significant challenge but essential for balancing the maintenance of health, diversity, and resource utilization. Vegetation plays a key role in regulating climate and weather, while the state and health of freshwater and coastal ecosystems impact global circulation patterns, as well as fisheries and recreation. Scientists and policymakers require tools to provide the information needed to understand how the Earth is changing and to define management strategies for the maintenance of biodiversity. The 2017–2027 National Academy of Sciences Decadal Survey, Thriving on Our Changing Planet, identified the critical need for a global imaging spectrometer (IS) combined with a multispectral thermal infrared (TIR) imager with a high–spatial resolution (~30 m for the IS and ~60 m for the TIR) and submonthly temporal resolution. The SBG Designated Observable is designed to meet the needs for regular mapping of the state and changes in Earth’s resources. A team of more than 130 scientists synthesized applications and methods for using SBG to provide the observations needed to inform science and management strategies. The team also identified the necessary next steps needed to prepare for an operational SBG-like satellite to

Principal Investigator

Shawn Serbin
Brookhaven National Laboratory

Program Manager

Daniel Stover
U.S. Department of Energy, Biological and Environmental Research (SC-33)
Environmental System Science


Support to the lead authors (Cawse-Nicholson and Townsend) was provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Headquarters and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), managed by California Institute of Technology. This study was also supported by the Space-based Imaging Spectroscopy and Thermal (SISTER) pathfinder, part of the Surface Biology and Geology (SBG) project, a NASA Earth Science Designated Observable. Adam Erickson’s contribution was supported by an appointment to the NASA Postdoctoral Program at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, administered by Universities Space Research Association under contract with NASA. Robert Frouin was supported by NASA’s Ocean Biology and Biogeochemistry Program under various grants. The contribution of Michael E. Schaepman is supported by the University of Zurich Research Priority Programme on Global Change and Biodiversity (URPP GCB). Shawn Serbin was supported by the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE)–Arctic and NGEE–Tropics projects that are supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research, within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, and through DOE contract No. DE-SC0012704 to Brookhaven National Laboratory. The authors thank the other members of the SBG Algorithms Working Group, constituting more than 130 researchers who participated in telecons and webinars to contribute to the contents of this paper. Two anonymous reviewers provided invaluable insight and recommendations, and team members are grateful for their time and suggestions. Part of the research described in this paper was carried out at JPL, under contract with NASA © 2021 California Institute of Technology. Government sponsorship is acknowledged.


Cawse-Nicholson, D. et al. "NASA’s Surface Biology and Geology Designated Observable: A Perspective on Surface Imaging Algorithms." Remote Sensing of Environment 257 112349  (2021).