New Infrared Sensor Technology Radiometer (NIRST)

An Instrument for the Measurement of Fire and Sea Surface Temperatures


Launch date: June 10th, 2011

Location: Vandenberg AFB, California

Launcher: United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket

Spacecraft: The 4th Argentinian Satélite de Aplicaciones Cientificas (SAC-D)

Planned Mission Duration: 5 years

Instruments on board:

  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)-built primary instrument Aquarius will map global changes in salinity at the ocean surface

  • New Infrared Sensor Technology (NIRST), jointly built by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the national commission on space activities of Argentina Comisión Nacional de Actividades Espaciales (CONAE), is an important Earth observation instrument which will retrieve the temperatures and thermal images of, among others, ocean surface and high temperature events such as forest fires and volcanic activities.

  • Six other instruments and devices contributed by CONAE, the Italian space agency (ASI), and Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES) (French space agency)

NIRST Instrument

The primary purpose of NIRST is to monitor the extent and retrieve the temperatures of forest fires and other high temperature events. Another purpose of the NIRST instrument is to provide additional data for the Aquarius experiments in retrieving sea surface temperatures.

The instrument comprises mainly two radiometric cameras providing coregistration of thermal radiation of the Earth surface in three channels of mid and long wave infrared. Each camera makes use of one linear array of 512x3 uncooled microbolometers to pushbroom scan the ground, making it the largest sensor of its kind to be put in orbit. The combination of the selected channels and suitable algorithms will allow for the retrieval of fire and sea surface temperatures.

The satellite will be launched into a Sun Synchronous polar orbit with an ascending node at 6 p.m. This orbit suits the need of discriminating forest fires from solar reflections. NIRST is designed to achieve a spatial resolution of 350 m and a swath width of 180 km at nadir. Its field-of-regard can be steered across track up to 500 km on each side to shorten the revisit time. This spatial resolution is higher than that of NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), offering the possibility of an improved product performance in terms of the minimum detectable fire size and fire radiated power.

Canadian Sensor Technology

NIRST is built on the new Canadian infrared sensor technology known as linear array of 512x3 micromachined bolometers. In size, each bolometer is just a fraction of a human hair, which allows for the highest pixel density achieved to date in linear focal plane of uncooled sensors. Further, this focal plane has the very unique and desirable ability of registering all the scene pixels simultaneously. The sensor was designed and investigated through internal R&D at the CSA and micromachined using specialized engineers and facilities at INO, a Quebec City based company (formerly Institut national d'optique). The sensor combines adequate sensitivities to both mid and long waves in the infrared, large field-of-regard, and low power consumption to provide a unique space solution for forest fire monitoring and research, as well as other needs in thermal remote sensing.

NIRST Applications

Canada has about 10% of the world forest. An average of over two million hectares of forest burn annually and this number is expected to increase in the decades ahead as temperatures rise due to climate warming. Rapid detection and management of forest fires can save human lives and millions of dollars in property damage and help reduce the amount of pollutants released into the atmosphere. Scientists at the Natural Resources Canada's (NRCan) Canadian Forest Service are involved with the United Nations (UN) Global Observation of Forest Cover (GOFC) Fire program to further Canadian research on fire monitoring using novel infrared sensor solutions. NIRST will provide the tools to monitor forest fires and measure fire fuel consumption from space, in a manner that is timely for reporting on carbon release from fires. Having signed agreements such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Canada is one of the first countries committed to this process. To this end NRCan developed in 2003 a Fire Monitoring, Accounting and Reporting System (FireMARS) with the support of the CSA. The data inputs to FireMARS are based partially on the detection and mapping of fires from several thermal infrared satellites. The data from NIRST will potentially allow Canadian fire managers to monitor fires that cover as little as 1/10th of a hectare. Detecting fires at this scale allows early firefighting effort, therefore has immense potential to minimize the damage and improve tracking on the carbon emissions from fires.


In 2005 CONAE made a proposal to the CSA for a partnership on NIRST given a strong interest in the CSA's microbolometer sensor technology. An Agreement between CSA and CONAE for cooperation in the SAC-D Aquarius mission was signed on March 14, 2006. In providing the microbolometer sensors at the heart of the NIRST instrument, the CSA will gain heritage for this new Canadian technology and free access to data of all instruments on board of the SAC-D spacecraft. The space heritage is important for INO in its effort to capitalize on this technology. With the recent sensor technology license granted by the CSA, INO is currently the sole world supplier of flight grade linear array of microbolometers. It should be noted that CONAE awarded an important contract to INO for the manufacturing of the dual cameras for the NIRST instrument. Also, INO has recently been awarded contracts to build and supply microbolometer sensors to the European Space Agency (ESA) EarthCare mission and to the Indian Space Agency (ISRO). The availability of the new sensor technology at INO is beneficial as well to Canadian system integrators such as ComDev, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA), Neptec, and ABB Bomem.