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  • SpatialNews SRTM Home
  • Download SRTM data
  • SRTM Documentation

    July 31, 2003 (Printer Friendly)

    This document was derived from information publicly accessible from this USGS ftp site

    The SRTM data sets result from a collaborative effort by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), as well as the participation of the German and Italian space agencies, to generate a near-global digital elevation model (DEM) of the Earth using radar interferometry. The SRTM instrument consisted of the Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C (SIR-C) hardware set modified with a Space Station-derived mast and additional antennae to form an interferometer with a 60 meter long baseline. A description of the SRTM mission, can be found in Farr and Kobrick (2000).
    The SRTM-1 and SRTM-3 are preliminary terrain height data sets. NASA has taken significant efforts to avoid confusion of the SRTM-1 and SRTM-3 digital elevation models with the NIMA standard (Digital Terrain Elevation Data) DTED-1 and DTED-2 terrain height data sets. The SRTM-1 and SRTM-3 data products result from special processing of the SRTM data in response to requests from Principal Investigators selected under NASA's Solid Earth and Natural Hazards Program, as well as other special requests from NIMA and NASA. The SRTM-1 and SRTM-3 data are preliminary products distributed for evaluation by the research and applications user community.

    Synthetic aperture radars are side-looking instruments and acquire data along continuous swaths. The SRTM swaths extended from about 30 degrees off-nadir to about 58 degrees off-nadir from an altitude of 233 km, and thus were about 225 km wide. During the data flight the instrument was operated at all times the orbiter was over land and about 1000 individual swaths were acquired over the ten days of mapping operations. Length of the acquired swaths range from a few hundred to several thousand km. Each individual data acquisition is referred to as a "data take."

    SRTM was the primary (and pretty much only) payload on the STS-99 mission of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which launched February 11, 2000 and flew for 11 days. Following several hours for instrument deployment, activation and checkout, systematic interferometric data were collected for 222.4 consecutive hours. The instrument operated virtually flawlessly and imaged 99.96% of the targeted landmass at least one time, 94.59% at least twice and about 50% at least three or more times. The goal was to image each terrain segment at least twice from different angles (on ascending, or north-going, and descending orbit passes) to fill in areas shadowed from the radar beam by terrain.

    This 'targeted landmass' consisted of all land between 56 degrees south and 60 degrees north latitude, which comprises almost exactly 80% of the total landmass.

    Data Set Characteristics

    SRTM data are being processed in a systematic fashion using the SRTM Ground Data Processing System (GDPS) supercomputer system at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Data are being mosaicked into approximately 15,000 one degree by one degree cells and formatted according to the Digital Terrain Elevation Data (DTED) specification for delivery to NIMA, who will use it to update and extend their DTED products. Data are being processed on a continent-by-continent basis beginning with North America. NIMA will apply several post-processing steps to these data including editing, spike and well removal, water body leveling and coastline definition. Following these "finishing" steps data will be returned to NASA for distribution to the scientific and civil user communities, as well as the public.

    However, in advance of that, some portion of the data processed by the GDPS is being released to Principal Investigators selected by NASA under the Solid Earth and Natural Hazards program, in response to requests for specific research programs.


    SRTM data will be delivered in individual rasterized cells, or tiles, each covering one degree by one degree in latitude and longitude. Sample spacing for individual data points is either 1 arc-second or 3 arc-seconds, referred to as SRTM-1 and SRTM-3, respectively. Since one arc-second at the equator corresponds to roughly 30 meters in horizontal extent, the sets are sometimes referred to as "30 meter" or "90 meter" data.

    Elevation mosaics

    Each SRTM data tile contains a mosaic of elevations generated by averaging all data takes that fall within that tile. Since the primary error source in synthetic aperture radar data is speckle, which has the characteristics of random noise, combining data through averaging reduces the error by the square root of the number of data takes used. In the case of SRTM the number of data takes could range from a minimum of one (in a very few cases) up to as many as ten.

    Data Formats

    The names of individual data tiles refer to the longitude and latitude of the lower-left (southwest) corner of the tile (this follows the DTED convention as opposed to the GTOPO30 standard). For example, the coordinates of the lower-left corner of tile N40W118 are 40 degrees north latitude and 118 degrees west longitude. To be more exact, these coordinates refer to the geometric center of the lower left pixel, which in the case of SRTM-1 data will be about 30 meters in extent.

    SRTM-1 data are sampled at one arc-second of latitude and longitude and each file contains 3601 lines and 3601 samples. The rows at the north and south ecges as well as the columns at the east and west edges of each cell overlap and are identical to the edge rows and columns in the adjacent cell.

    SRTM-3 data are sampled at three arc-seconds and contain 1201 lines and 1201 samples with similar overlapping rows and columns. This organization also follows the DTED convention. Unlike DTED, however, 3 arc-second data are generated in each case by 3x3 averaging of the 1 arc-second data - thus 9 samples are combined in each 3 arc-second data point. Since the primary error source in the elevation data has the characteristics of random noise this reduces that error by roughly a factor of three.

    This sampling scheme is sometimes called a "geographic projection", but of course it is not actually a projection in the mapping sense. It does not possess any of the characteristics usually present in true map projections, for example it is not conformal, so that if it is displayed as an image geographic features will be distorted. However it is quite easy to handle mathematically, can be easily imported into most image processing and GIS software packages, and multiple cells can be assembled easily into a larger mosaic (unlike the pesky UTM projection, for example.)

    DEM File (.HGT)

    The DEM is provided as 16-bit signed integer data in a simple binary raster. There are no header or trailer bytes embedded in the file. The data are stored in row major order (all the data for row 1, followed by all the data for row 2, etc.).

    All elevations are in meters referenced to the WGS84 geoid. INote that this from data processed by the "PI Processor", which uses the WGS84 ellipsoid.

    Byte order is Motorola ("big-endian") standard with the most significant byte first. Since they are signed integers elevations can range from -32767 to 32767 meters, encompassing the range of elevation to be found on the Earth.

    In these preliminary data there commonly will be data voids from a number of causes such as shadowing, phase unwrapping anomalies, or other radar-specific causes. Voids are flagged with the value -32768.

    Data Encoding Notes

    Because the DEM data are stored in a 16-bit binary format, users must be aware of how the bytes are addressed on their computers. The DEM data are provided in Motorola or IEEE byte order, which stores the most significant byte first ("big endian"). Systems such as Sun SPARC and Silicon Graphics workstations use the Motorola byte order. The Intel byte order, which stores the least significant byte first ("little endian"), is used on DEC Alpha systems and most PCs. Users with systems that address bytes in the Intel byte order may have to "swap bytes" of the DEM data unless their application software performs the conversion during ingest.

    SRTM Caveats

    As with all digital geospatial data sets, users of SRTM must be aware of certain characteristics of the data set (resolution, accuracy, method of production and any resulting artifacts, etc.) in order to better judge its suitability for a specific application. A characteristic of SRTM that renders it unsuitable for one application may have no relevance as a limiting factor for its use in a different application.

    In particular, data produced by the PI processor should be considered as "research grade" data suitable for scientific investigations and development and testing of various civil applications.

    No editing has been performed on the data, and the elevation data in particular contain numerous voids and other spurious points such as anomalously high (spike) or low (well) values. Water bodies will generally not be well-defined - in fact since water surfaces generally produce very low radar backscatter they will appear quite "noisy" or rough, in the elevations data. Similarly, coastlines will not be well-defined.

    Note for users of ARC/INFO or ArcView

    Users of ARC/INFO or ArcView can display the DEM data directly after renaming the file extension from .HGT to .BIL. However, if a user needs access to the actual elevation values for analysis in ARC/INFO the DEM must be converted to an ARC/INFO grid with the command IMAGEGRID. For IMAGEGRID to work there must be a separate header file whose name (including case) is exactly the same as the image file name. See more detailed documentation Here


    Farr, T.G., M. Kobrick, 2000, Shuttle Radar Topography Mission produces a
    wealth of data, Amer. Geophys. Union Eos, v. 81, p. 583-585.
    Rosen, P.A., S. Hensley, I.R. Joughin, F.K. Li, S.N. Madsen, E. Rodriguez,
    R.M. Goldstein, 2000, Synthetic aperture radar interferometry, Proc. IEEE,
    v. 88, p. 333-382.
    NIMA, 1994, Military Standard WGS84,

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