Photographs and other images of the Earth taken from the air and from space show a great deal about the planet's landforms, vegetation, and resources. Aerial and satellite images, known as remotely sensed images, permit accurate mapping of land cover and make landscape features understandable on regional, continental, and even global scales. Transient phenomena, such as seasonal vegetation vigor and contaminant discharges, can be studied by comparing images acquired at different times.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which began using aerial photographs for mapping in the 1930's, archives photographs from its mapping projects and from those of some other Federal agencies. In addition, many images from such space programs as Landsat, begun in 1972, are held by the USGS. Most satellite scenes can be obtained only in digital form for use in computer-based image processing and geographic information systems, but in some cases are also available as photographic products.