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The launch of ADEOS in August 1996 with POLDER, TOMS, and OCTS instruments on board and the future launch of EOS-AM 1 in mid-1998 with MODIS and MISR instruments on board start a new era in remote sensing of aerosol as part of a new remote sensing of the whole Earth system (see a list of the acronyms in the Notation section of the paper). These platforms will be followed by other international platforms with unique aerosol sensing capability, some still in this century (e.g., ENVISAT in 1999). These international spaceborne multispectral, multiangular, and polarization measurements, combined for the first time with international automatic, routine monitoring of aerosol from the ground, are expected to form a quantum leap in our ability to observe the highly variable global aerosol. This new capability is contrasted with present single-channel techniques for AVHRR, Meteosat, and GOES that although poorly calibrated and poorly characterized already generated important aerosol global maps and regional transport assessments. The new data will improve significantly atmospheric corrections for the aerosol effect on remote sensing of the oceans and be used to generate first real-time atmospheric corrections over the land. This special issue summarizes the science behind this change in remote sensing, and the sensitivity studies and applications of the new algorithms to data from present satellite and aircraft instruments. Background information and a summary of a critical discussion that took place in a workshop devoted to this topic is given in this introductory paper. In the discussion it was concluded that the anticipated remote sensing of aerosol simultaneously from several space platforms with different observation strategies, together with continuous validations around the world, is expected to be of significant importance to test remote sensing approaches to characterize the complex and highly variable aerosol field. So far, we have only partial understanding of the information content and accuracy of the radiative transfer inversion of aerosol information from the satellite data, due to lack of sufficient theoretical analysis and applications to proper field data. This limitation will make the anticipated new data even more interesting and challenging. A main concern is the present inadequate ability to sense aerosol absorption, from space or from the ground. Absorption is a critical parameter for climate studies and atmospheric corrections. Over oceans, main concerns are the effects of white caps and dust on the correction scheme. Future improvement in aerosol retrieval and atmospheric corrections will require better climatology of the aerosol properties and understanding of the effects of mixed composition and shape of the particles. The main ingredient missing in the planned remote sensing of aerosol are spaceborne and ground-based lidar observations of the aerosol profiles.