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New Generation in Earth Observation to Begin

Washington — A new Earth-observing satellite, being prepared for launch in February, will enter orbit with the capability to collect more and better data than any of its seven predecessors in the Landsat series.

The Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) will extend the 40 years of land observations that have provided vital information in fields including energy, agriculture, resource management, environmental health, urban planning and disaster recovery.

NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) jointly manage the program, which began in 1972. The director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, Michael Freilich, says Landsat has elevated scientific understanding of Earth’s systems.

“USGS’s policy of offering free and open access to the phenomenal 40-year Landsat data record will continue to give the United States and global research community a better understanding of the changes occurring on our planet,” Freilich said.

NASA will launch LDCM on February 11, sending the satellite into a polar orbit. After the initial launch and systems check, USGS will take operational control as the satellite circles the planet about 14 times daily at an altitude of more than 700 kilometers. The craft will take the new name Landsat 8 when its regular orbit is assumed.

Landsat 8 will pass over every location on Earth once every 16 days and send data to ground stations in Norway, and in Alaska and South Dakota in the United States.

USGS’s Matthew Larsen, associate director for climate and land use change, says Landsat delivers crucial data about natural resources. “Forest managers, for instance, use Landsat’s recurring imagery to monitor the status of woodlands in near-real-time. Landsat-based approaches also now are being used in most western states for cost-effective allocation of water for irrigation. This mission will continue that vital role.”

LDCM has sensors that are expected to improve both performance and reliability.

LDCM will be the best Landsat satellite yet launched in terms of the quality and quantity of the data collected by the LDCM sensors,” said Jim Irons, LDCM project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

LDCM’s two instruments are the Operational Land Imager (OLI) and the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS). Irons said they will “both employ technological advances that will make the observations more sensitive to the variation across the landscape and to changes in the land surface over time.”

Landsat 7, currently in orbit, collects its observations in the near infrared and the shortwave infrared portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. OLI will sustain those observations and will also take measurements in two new bands, allowing observation of high-altitude cirrus clouds and water quality in lakes and along coasts.

As the launch date for Landsat 8 approaches, Landsat 5 is being decommissioned, ending the longest observational satellite mission in history. Launched in 1984 and designed for a three-year mission, Landsat 5 has provided a steady stream of data for 29 years, with engineers giving the satellite a few tweaks along the way.

Landsat 5 has orbited the planet more than 150,000 times and transmitted more than 2.5 million images of surface conditions worldwide.

USGS began making Landsat data free to all in 2008, a time when advances were being made in increasing computers’ capacity to process ever-larger data sets. Those two developments have given scientists better tools to compare and analyze landscape images collected over long periods of time, allowing greater insight into a changing planet.

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