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Access satellite imagery using Python


Teaching: 30 min
Exercises: 15 min
  • Where can I find open-access satellite data?

  • How do I search for satellite imagery with the STAC API?

  • How do I fetch remote raster datasets using Python?

  • Search public STAC repositories of satellite imagery using Python.

  • Inspect search result’s metadata.

  • Download (a subset of) the assets available for a satellite scene.

  • Open satellite imagery as raster data and save it to disk.


A number of satellites take snapshots of the Earth’s surface from space. The images recorded by these remote sensors represent a very precious data source for any activity that involves monitoring changes on Earth. Satellite imagery is typically provided in the form of geospatial raster data, with the measurements in each grid cell (“pixel”) being associated to accurate geographic coordinate information.

In this episode we will explore how to access open satellite data using Python. In particular, we will consider the Sentinel-2 data collection that is hosted on AWS. This dataset consists of multi-band optical images acquired by the two satellites of the Sentinel-2 mission and it is continuously updated with new images.

Search for satellite imagery

The SpatioTemporal Asset Catalog (STAC) specification

Current sensor resolutions and satellite revisit periods are such that terabytes of data products are added daily to the corresponding collections. Such datasets cannot be made accessible to users via full-catalog download. Space agencies and other data providers often offer access to their data catalogs through interactive Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs), see for instance the Copernicus Open Access Hub portal for the Sentinel missions. Accessing data via a GUI is a nice way to explore a catalog and get familiar with its content, but it represents a heavy and error-prone task that should be avoided if carried out systematically to retrieve data.

A service that offers programmatic access to the data enables users to reach the desired data in a more reliable, scalable and reproducible manner. An important element in the software interface exposed to the users, which is generally called the Application Programming Interface (API), is the use of standards. Standards, in fact, can significantly facilitate the reusability of tools and scripts across datasets and applications.

The SpatioTemporal Asset Catalog (STAC) specification is an emerging standard for describing geospatial data. By organizing metadata in a form that adheres to the STAC specifications, data providers make it possible for users to access data from different missions, instruments and collections using the same set of tools.

More Resources on STAC

Search a STAC catalog

The STAC browser is a good starting point to discover available datasets, as it provides an up-to-date list of existing STAC catalogs. From the list, let’s click on the “Earth Search” catalog, i.e. the access point to search the archive of Sentinel-2 images hosted on AWS.

Exercise: Discover a STAC catalog

Let’s take a moment to explore the Earth Search STAC catalog, which is the catalog indexing the Sentinel-2 collection that is hosted on AWS. We can interactively browse this catalog using the STAC browser at this link.

  1. Open the link in your web browser. Which (sub-)catalogs are available?
  2. Open the Sentinel-2 L2A COGs collection, and select one item from the list. Each item corresponds to a satellite “scene”, i.e. a portion of the footage recorded by the satellite at a given time. Have a look at the metadata fields and the list of assets. What kind of data do the assets represent?


1) Four subcatalogs are available, including both Sentinel 2 and Landsat 8 images (see left screenshot in the figure above).

2) When you select the Sentinel-2 L2A COGs collection, and randomly choose one of the items from the list, you should find yourself on a page similar to the right screenshot in the figure above. On the left side you will find a list of the available assets: overview images (thumbnail and true color images), metadata files and the “real” satellite images, one for each band captured by the Multispectral Instrument on board Sentinel-2.

When opening a catalog with the STAC browser, you can access the API URL by clicking on the “Source” button on the top right of the page. By using this URL, we have access to the catalog content and, if supported by the catalog, to the functionality of searching its items. For the Earth Search STAC catalog the API URL is:

api_url = ""

You can query a STAC API endpoint from Python using the pystac_client library:

from pystac_client import Client

client =

In the following, we ask for scenes belonging to the sentinel-s2-l2a-cogs collection. This dataset includes Sentinel-2 data products pre-processed at level 2A (bottom-of-atmosphere reflectance) and saved in Cloud Optimized GeoTIFF (COG) format:

collection = "sentinel-s2-l2a-cogs"  # Sentinel-2, Level 2A, COGs

Cloud Optimized GeoTIFFs

Cloud Optimized GeoTIFFs (COGs) are regular GeoTIFF files with some additional features that make them ideal to be employed in the context of cloud computing and other web-based services. This format builds on the widely-employed GeoTIFF format, already introduced in Episode 1: Introduction to Raster Data. In essence, COGs are regular GeoTIFF files with a special internal structure. One of the features of COGs is that data is organized in “blocks” that can be accessed remotely via independent HTTP requests. Data users can thus access the only blocks of a GeoTIFF that are relevant for their analysis, without having to download the full file. In addition, COGs typically include multiple lower-resolution versions of the original image, called “overviews”, which can also be accessed independently. By providing this “pyramidal” structure, users that are not interested in the details provided by a high-resolution raster can directly access the lower-resolution versions of the same image, significantly saving on the downloading time. More information on the COG format can be found here.

We also ask for scenes intersecting a geometry defined using the shapely library (in this case, a point):

from shapely.geometry import Point
point = Point(4.89, 52.37)  # AMS coordinates

Note: at this stage, we are only dealing with metadata, so no image is going to be downloaded yet. But even metadata can be quite bulky if a large number of scenes match our search! For this reason, we limit the search result to 10 items:

search =

We submit the query and find out how many scenes match our search criteria (please note that this output can be different as more data is added to the catalog):


Finally, we retrieve the metadata of the search results:

items = search.get_all_items()

The variable items is an ItemCollection object. We can check its size by:


which is consistent with the maximum number of items that we have set in the search criteria. We can iterate over the returned items and print these to show their IDs:

for item in items:
<Item id=S2B_31UFU_20220313_0_L2A>
<Item id=S2A_31UFU_20220311_0_L2A>
<Item id=S2A_31UFU_20220308_0_L2A>
<Item id=S2B_31UFU_20220306_0_L2A>
<Item id=S2B_31UFU_20220303_0_L2A>
<Item id=S2A_31UFU_20220301_0_L2A>
<Item id=S2A_31UFU_20220226_0_L2A>
<Item id=S2B_31UFU_20220224_0_L2A>
<Item id=S2B_31UFU_20220221_0_L2A>
<Item id=S2A_31UFU_20220219_0_L2A>

Each of the items contains information about the scene geometry, its acquisition time, and other metadata that can be accessed as a dictionary from the properties attribute.

Let’s inspect the metadata associated with the first item of the search results:

item = items[0]
2022-03-13 10:46:26+00:00
{'type': 'Polygon', 'coordinates': [[[6.071664488869862, 52.22257539160586], [4.81543624496389, 52.24859574950519], [5.134718264192548, 52.98684040773408], [6.115758198408397, 52.84931817668945], [6.071664488869862, 52.22257539160586]]]}
{'datetime': '2022-03-13T10:46:26Z', 'platform': 'sentinel-2b', 'constellation': 'sentinel-2', 'instruments': ['msi'], 'gsd': 10, 'view:off_nadir': 0, 'proj:epsg': 32631, 'sentinel:utm_zone': 31, 'sentinel:latitude_band': 'U', 'sentinel:grid_square': 'FU', 'sentinel:sequence': '0', 'sentinel:product_id': 'S2B_MSIL2A_20220313T103729_N0400_R008_T31UFU_20220313T140234', 'sentinel:data_coverage': 48.71, 'eo:cloud_cover': 99.95, 'sentinel:valid_cloud_cover': True, 'sentinel:processing_baseline': '04.00', 'sentinel:boa_offset_applied': True, 'created': '2022-03-13T17:43:18.861Z', 'updated': '2022-03-13T17:43:18.861Z'}

Exercise: Search satellite scenes using metadata filters

Search for all the available Sentinel-2 scenes in the sentinel-s2-l2a-cogs collection that satisfy the following criteria:

  • intersect a provided bounding box (use ±0.01 deg in lat/lon from the previously defined point);
  • have been recorded between 20 March 2020 and 30 March 2020;
  • have a cloud coverage smaller than 10% (hint: use the query input argument of

How many scenes are available? Save the search results in GeoJSON format.


bbox = point.buffer(0.01).bounds
search =
items = search.get_all_items()

Access the assets

So far we have only discussed metadata - but how can one get to the actual images of a satellite scene (the “assets” in the STAC nomenclature)? These can be reached via links that are made available through the item’s attribute assets.

assets = items[0].assets  # first item's asset dictionary
dict_keys(['thumbnail', 'overview', 'info', 'metadata', 'visual', 'B01', 'B02', 'B03', 'B04', 'B05', 'B06', 'B07', 'B08', 'B8A', 'B09', 'B11', 'B12', 'AOT', 'WVP', 'SCL'])

We can print a minimal description of the available assets:

for key, asset in assets.items():
    print(f"{key}: {asset.title}")
thumbnail: Thumbnail
overview: True color image
info: Original JSON metadata
metadata: Original XML metadata
visual: True color image
B01: Band 1 (coastal)
B02: Band 2 (blue)
B03: Band 3 (green)
B04: Band 4 (red)
B05: Band 5
B06: Band 6
B07: Band 7
B08: Band 8 (nir)
B8A: Band 8A
B09: Band 9
B11: Band 11 (swir16)
B12: Band 12 (swir22)
AOT: Aerosol Optical Thickness (AOT)
WVP: Water Vapour (WVP)
SCL: Scene Classification Map (SCL)

Among the others, assets include multiple raster data files (one per optical band, as acquired by the multi-spectral instrument), a thumbnail, a true-color image (“visual”), instrument metadata and scene-classification information (“SCL”). Let’s get the URL links to the actual asset:


This can be used to download the corresponding file:

Remote raster data can be directly opened via the rioxarray library. We will learn more about this library in the next episodes.

import rioxarray
b01_href = assets["B01"].href
b01 = rioxarray.open_rasterio(b01_href)
<xarray.DataArray (band: 1, y: 1830, x: 1830)>
[3348900 values with dtype=uint16]
  * band         (band) int64 1
  * x            (x) float64 6e+05 6.001e+05 6.002e+05 ... 7.097e+05 7.098e+05
  * y            (y) float64 5.9e+06 5.9e+06 5.9e+06 ... 5.79e+06 5.79e+06
    spatial_ref  int64 0
    _FillValue:    0.0
    scale_factor:  1.0
    add_offset:    0.0

We can then save the data to disk:

# save image to disk"B01.tif")

Exercise: Downloading Landsat 8 Assets

In this exercise we put in practice all the skills we have learned in this episode to retrieve images from a different mission: Landsat 8. In particular, we browse images from the Harmonized Landsat Sentinel-2 (HLS) project, which provides images from NASA’s Landsat 8 and ESA’s Sentinel-2 that have been made consistent with each other. The HLS catalog is indexed in the NASA Common Metadata Repository (CMR) and it can be accessed from the STAC API endpoint at the following URL:

  • Using pystac_client, search for all assets of the Landsat 8 collection (HLSL30.v2.0) from February to March 2021, intersecting the point with longitude/latitute coordinates (-73.97, 40.78) deg.
  • Visualize an item’s thumbnail (asset key browse).


# connect to the STAC endpoint
cmr_api_url = ""
client =

# setup search
search =
    intersects=Point(-73.97, 40.78),
) # nasa cmr cloud cover filtering is currently broken:

# retrieve search results
items = search.get_all_items()
items_sorted = sorted(items, key=lambda x:["eo:cloud_cover"]) # sorting and then selecting by cloud cover
item = items_sorted[0]
<Item id=HLS.L30.T18TWL.2021039T153324.v2.0>

Public catalogs, protected data

Publicly accessible catalogs and STAC endpoints do not necessarily imply publicly accessible data. Data providers, in fact, may limit data access to specific infrastructures and/or require authentication. For instance, the NASA CMR STAC endpoint considered in the last exercise offers publicly accessible metadata for the HLS collection, but most of the linked assets are available only for registered users (the thumbnail is publicly accessible).

The authentication procedure for dataset with restricted access might differ depending on the data provider. For the NASA CMR, follow these steps in order to access data using Python:

  • Create a NASA Earthdata login account here;
  • Set up a netrc file with your credentials, e.g. by using this script;
  • Define the following environment variables:
import os
os.environ["GDAL_HTTP_COOKIEFILE"] = "./cookies.txt"
os.environ["GDAL_HTTP_COOKIEJAR"] = "./cookies.txt"

Key Points

  • Accessing satellite images via the providers’ API enables a more reliable and scalable data retrieval.

  • STAC catalogs can be browsed and searched using the same tools and scripts.

  • rioxarray allows you to open and download remote raster files.