Earth Matters

Landsat: Continuing the Legacy

April 1st, 2021 by Matthew Radcliff

Five decades ago, NASA and the U.S. Geological Society launched a satellite to monitor Earth’s landmasses. The Apollo era had given us our first look at Earth from space and inspired scientists to regularly collect images of our planet. The first Landsat — originally known as the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS) — rocketed into space in 1972. Today we are preparing to launch the ninth satellite in the series. 

Each Landsat has improved our view of Earth, while providing a continuous record of how our home has evolved. We decided to examine the legacy of the Landsat program in a four-part series of videos narrated by actor Marc Evan Jackson (who played a Landsat scientist in the movie Kong: Skull Island). The series moves from the birth of the program to preparations for launching Landsat 9 and even into the future of these satellites. 

Episode 1: Getting Off the Ground

The soon-to-be-launched Landsat 9 is the intellectual and technical successor to eight generations of Landsat missions. Episode 1 answers the “why?” questions. Why did space exploration between 1962 and 1972 lead to such a mission? Why did the leadership of several U.S. government agencies commit to it? Why did scientists come to see satellites as important to advancing earth science? In this episode, we are introduced to William Pecora and Stewart Udall, two men who propelled the project forward, as well as Virginia Norwood, who breathed life into new technology. 

Episode 2: Designing for the Future

The early Landsat satellites carried a sensor that could “see” visible light, plus a little bit of near-infrared light. Newer Landsats, including the coming Landsat 9 mission, have two sensors: the Operational Land Imager (OLI) and the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS). Together they observe in visible, near-infrared, shortwave-infrared, and thermal infrared wavelengths. By comparing observations of different wavelengths, scientists can identify algal blooms, storm damage, fire burn scars, the health of plants, and more.

Episode 2 takes us inside the spacecraft, showing how Landsat instruments collect carefully calibrated data. We are introduced to Matt Bromley, who studies water usage in the western United States, as well as Phil Dabney and Melody Djam, who have worked on designing and building Landsat 9. Together, they are making sure that Landsat continues to deliver data to help manage Earth’s precious resources. 

Episode 3: More Than Just a Pretty Picture

The Landsat legacy includes five decades of observations, one of the longest continuous Earth data records in existence. The length of that record is crucial for studying change over time, from the growth of cities to the extension of irrigation in the desert, from insect damage to forests to plant regrowth after a volcanic eruption. Since 2008, that data has been free to the public. Anyone can download and use Landsat imagery for everything from scientific papers to crop maps to beautiful art. 

Episode 3 explores the efforts of USGS to downlink and archive five decades of Landsat data. We introduce Mike O’Brien, who is on the receiving end of daily satellite downloads, as well as Kristi Kline, who works to make Landsat data available to users. Jeff Masek, the Landsat 9 project scientist at NASA, describes how free access to data has revolutionized what we are learning about our home planet.


Episode 4: Plays Well With Others

For the past 50 years, Landsat satellites have shown us Earth in unprecedented ways, but they haven’t operated in isolation. Landsat works in conjunction with other satellites from NASA, NOAA, and the European Space Agency, as well as private companies. It takes a combination of datasets to get a full picture of what’s happening on the surface of Earth. 

In Episode 4, we are introduced to Danielle Rappaport, who combines audio recordings with Landsat data to measure biodiversity in rainforests. Jeff Masek also describes using Landsat and other data to understand depleted groundwater. 

Learn more about the Landsat science team at NASA. 

Learn more about the Landsat program at USGS.

View images in our Landsat gallery.

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3 Responses to “Landsat: Continuing the Legacy”

  1. Guest says:

    My role was to study the Mekong.From the Landsat dashboard it can be drawn that the fire risk area
    Can be detected after a few sweeps above the sky.
    The kiwi is more difficult to find somewhere below the map where grids can be connected
    To the centre page.Using green color I found then it is next the triangle where there are lots
    Of other activities such as logging and farming plus artillery and small gun fires.
    I am then asked to conclude the Landsat studies of there are three proportions ,the first
    Was the blue line from north to south,in the USA the color is white.
    The latency some of which is next to the coast and the proportion changes to the land mass with
    Data 1017 next to the gulf.
    Finally there is the arctic as it paints the top of the map all white.

  2. Guest says:

    The look for water shows that water is a scarcity.A project from the price of water as a commodity will
    Show really what is happening in real time.If the timeframe is set from 2011 and projection to 2030
    The starting point is 500 and the end point is projected to be 2000.
    What happens in shanghai was the speed of urbanisation changing the river landscape and consuming
    More water as refllected on the right to left side of the screen.
    The oli is to bring the sweep into a central,structured database to improve the timing of the camera shots
    And it’s accessibility.The program asks just one question?Is it suitable for life?
    Geolocation data from gps systems was made available so that the total square kilometres could be
    Measured against metadata collected from the gulf to prove that there is global warming.
    The south therefore has higher temperatures than the north because it is hot.