Earth observation from space occurs throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. With my meteorological bias, I until recently believed it wasn't at frequencies higher than UV, but the X-Ray detector AXIS proves me wrong. What is the highest frequency instrument that is dedicated to Earth observation from space? The RHESSI spacecraft apparently measured γ-rays from Earth, but rather as a side-effect to observing γ-rays from the Sun. AXIS measures up to 300 KeV (12 picometre, 25 exahertz). Is this the highest frequency for any dedicated Earth observation from space, or are there even higher-frequency sensors? I'm interested in either historical instrument, current instruments, or instruments confirmed to be launched soon.

  • 2
    Nuclear explosion sensor payloads on early warning satellites. – Deer Hunter Aug 2 '13 at 11:45
  • @DeerHunter Wouldn't those be absorbed by the atmosphere? E.g. NASA, Wikipedia. Since astronomers need to get above the atmosphere to see solar and galactic γ-rays, then γ-rays emitted from the Earth surface must be invisible from space...? (Sounds like a question for Geoscience). – gerrit Aug 2 '13 at 14:56
  • @gerrit deep space gamma ray sources were first discovered by satellites launched to monitor nuclear testing; so at least some are able to escape the atmosphere. (High altitude air bursts only?????) – Dan Neely Aug 2 '13 at 15:16
  • Why the downvote? – gerrit Aug 5 '13 at 17:26
up vote 9 down vote accepted

The highest frequency is gamma rays, dedicated to detecting nuclear explosions on Earth. These have provided some knowledge of space events as well, due to their low selectivity, but they are intended and dedicated to detecting nuclear explosions.

The first series of satellites to do this detection was the Vela satellites, which detected x-rays, gamma rays, neutrons, and looked for quick flashes of light. There have been many others over the years.

tl;dr: 2.4E+22 Hz

Terrestrial Gamma-ray Flashes are natural sources of gamma rays from Earth observed by satellites in space.

The science behind the phenomenon is far from figured out completely, but it involves lightning plus acceleration due to the strong static electric fields themselves.

From the AstroMEV website:

Terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs) are high-energy photons originating from the Earth's atmosphere in association with thunderstorm activity. TGFs were serendipitously discovered by BATSE detectors aboard the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory. TGFs have also been detected and further studied by the RHESSI, AGILE and Fermi satellites. Their emission extends up to 100 MeV and exhibits an e+ – e- annihilation line. TGFs were utterly unexpected and as of now they are not fully understood. They are believed to be the product of particles acceleration inside thunderstorms. As they are produced in the Earth’s atmosphere, they potentially have a tremendous impact on our understanding of thunderstorms and atmospheric electrodynamics in general.

100 MeV is quite large for a terrestrial process. Nuclear gamma rays are typically in the 100 keV to few MeV range for nuclear transitions, though there can be larger ones from exotic processes in nuclear collisions.


$$E = h \ f$$

where $h$ is the Planck Constant of about 4.1E-15 eV seconds, 100 MeV energy photons (1E+08 electron Volts) correspond to a frequency of about 2.4E+22 Hz.

I guess that's 24 Zetta-Hertz, (but who's counting?)

enter image description here

  • Earth observation frequencies are, depending on field, expressed in anything from wavelength, wavenumber, frequency, energy [eV], or even with band letters... – gerrit Jun 20 at 18:43
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    My apologies. I did not mean to suggest I wanted anything more than you already stated! – gerrit Jun 20 at 21:23
  • @gerrit ah, you are the OP, I hadn't noticed that earlier. Yes across the EM spectrum traditional unites transition many times, from meters in short wave to Hz in HF and microwaves back to cm for some microwave spectral lines (70 cm, 21 cm) to inverse cm (wavenumber) in IR to um and nm in near IR, vis, UV to eV, keV MeV, GeV for X-rays and gamma rays, and these all stem from the traditional instruments used in those bands. Yep there's lots of history in those units! – uhoh Jun 21 at 2:28

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