NASA recently celebrated the ten year birthday of the Terra Satellite, which was put to work on February 24, 2000. The Terra Satellite is one of the Earth Observing System (EOS) group of satellites, with the title EOS AM-1. Terra's mission is to ultimately collect a 15 year dataset of global information that will tell us about our complicated home.
One of the most stunning examples of Terra's capabalities is this animatedNASA MODIS image of the BP Oil Spill of 2010.
There is much to the Earth Observation System: There is the computer system that stores and works with the data, called EOSDIS, and the third component of the Earth Observation System is the scientists from all over the world who analyze the data.
The Terra Satellite alone hosts the following systems: ASTER, CERES, MISR, MODIS and MOPITT. Terra has a sister ship, Aqua, that was launched in 2002.
ASTER is the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer. It focuses on the electromagnetic spectrum and collects high resolution images of 14 electromagnetic wavelengths that go from visual spectra, to thermal infrared that is invisible to the human eye. Because it is the only spatial high resolution element of Terra, with 15 to 90 square meters per pixel, it also serves as the "zoom lens" for the other instruments. There are three ASTER telescopes that can cross track, giving stereoscopic imagery for showing the highs and lows of the terrain. To show the international cooperation and collaboration involved in EOS, ASTER was developed by the Japan Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and is maintained by a Joint US/Japanese team.
MISR may have had an impact on examining oil spills with one of its capabilities to capture "...the amount and type of atmospheric aerosol particles, including those formed by natural sources and by human activities".
MOPITTis the first instrument that can monitor with gas correlation spectroscopy from space. "Its specific focus is on the distribution, transport, sources, and sinks of carbon monoxide and methane in the troposphere." Since methane has been a major component of the gases released from underground and deep water oil caches, and is the major anthropogenic contributor to "greenhouse gases", this instrument probably provided incredibly valuable information during the 2010 BP oil spill.
But MODIS is the star of the show in tracking dramatic oil spills. This instrument is held on two of the EOS satellites, Terra and Aqua. Simply put, MODIS sees everything on Earth, every couple of days, in 36 discrete spectral bands. From phytoplankton levels to details of an oil spill, to wispy cirrus clouds, MODIS will capture the data.
A visit to the MODIS page will lead to an animated overview of the way in which this marvel works, not just for oil spills but for fires and other major events on Earth, including the planetary "green wave" that occurs when Spring hits the different parts of the world.