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How to use space data to probe humankind’s ancient past

07 Dec 2023

Data disseminated by ESA’s Third Party Missions (TPM) programme are enabling archaeological investigations that could help to unravel the mysteries of past societies and cultures.

In recent decades, remote sensing has emerged as a crucial asset for the field of archaeology, resulting in many new findings and improving understanding of previously discovered historic sites.

Vision-1 captures the Pyramids of Giza
Vision-1 captures the Pyramids of Giza

The orbital perspective of Earth observing satellites allows researchers to identify, monitor and analyse areas of interest all around the world, all while minimising the impact on the fragile relics they contain.

High resolution optical imagery and radar observations delivered by commercial missions have huge potential for such applications, but these data are often locked behind a paywall, which can limit their use in research.

Through its TPM programme, ESA addresses this challenge by disseminating data from privately owned missions on a free basis for research and development purposes.

High resolution optical missions

Of particular importance is high resolution optical imagery, which is essential to archaeological studies that involve the detailed inspection of structures and landscapes.

SkySat captures Angkor Wat in Cambodia
SkySat captures Angkor Wat in Cambodia

TPMs that are currently providing high resolution or very high resolution imagery for use in archaeological research include:

Pléiades Neo extends the constellation
Pléiades Neo extends the constellation

The projects being completed cover many different areas, such as assessing the impact of modern activities on ancient sites, detecting traces of past human activities, supporting citizen science initiatives, and many more.

In one project, for instance, very high resolution data from SkySat, Pléiades, Pléiades Neo and WorldView-2 are supporting the development of a process to detect features of potential interest, such as the remnants of ancient road networks and canals, or natural features like paleochannels.

Synthetic aperture radar data

High resolution synthetic aperture radar missions – which can continue to gather data day and night, and under all weather conditions – also have a growing role in archaeology.


Synthetic aperture radar TPMs that are currently supporting such projects include:

Data from these missions have many potential uses and, in one project, TanDEM-X observations are being applied in research into hunter gatherer mobility, and habitat reconstruction.

How to access the data

Data from the TPMs highlighted here can be requested from ESA’s Data Dissemination Service.

You can request the following datasets via the project proposals process, which can take up to six weeks to be evaluated:

You can access the following dataset via the fast registration with approval process, which takes a few days to be evaluated:

You can explore all of the datasets offered by ESA online.