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.
June 29th, 2020 by Emily Cassidy, NASA Earth Science Data Systems
NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have joined forces to create the COVID-19 Earth Observation Dashboard. The web platform combines the collective scientific power of the agencies’ Earth-observing satellites to document changes in the environment and society in response to the pandemic.
The dashboard is a user-friendly tool to track changes in air and water quality, climate change, economic activity, and agriculture.
Air quality changes were among the first noticeable impacts of pandemic-related stay-at-home orders, and the resulting reductions in industrial activity, that could be tracked through satellite observations. Reductions in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels — primarily related to temporary reductions in the burning of fossil fuels — show up clearly in satellite data.
A preliminary analysis also indicates that planting (farming) activity dropped during the quarantines and lockdowns. For example, the cultivated area of white asparagus in Brandenburg, Germany, has been 20 to 30 percent lower this year, compared to 2019. More information on agricultural productivity changes will be added to the dashboard in the months to come.
Recent water quality changes have been reported in a few locations that typically have intense industry and tourism — activities that have decreased during the pandemic. Data on ship identification, construction activity, and nighttime lights (above) are featured on the dashboard to keep track of some of the economic ramifications of the virus.
Together, ESA, JAXA, and NASA will continue to add new observations to the dashboard in the coming months to see how these indicators change. Learn more in the NASA press release, the video below, or by exploring the dashboard.
To counter the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the winter and spring of 2020, quarantines and social distancing measures were implemented around the world. Air traffic nearly ceased; non-essential businesses were closed; and the number of vehicles on the road fell well below normal.
Remote sensing scientists have started looking at potential changes in the environment due to these changes in human behavior. They are looking for signs of how environmental factors such as humidity, temperature, and ultraviolet radiation might play a role in the behavior of the virus. Some may also look for data related to access to water resources, which can be critical to the spread or prevention of certain diseases.
NASA’s Earth Science Data Systems program has developed a new web-based tool, the COVID-19 Data Pathfinder, which provides links to datasets that can be used to research changing environmental impacts from modified human behavior patterns, the possibility of seasonal trends in virus transmission, and water availability. The COVID-19 Data Pathfinder is also a resource for participants in NASA’s Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge, providing an intuitive means for new users to find and use NASA data.
Ever since a new and deadly strain of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) emerged in China and then spread around the world, the virus has upended life in many countries. Scientists at NASA and other institutions have hustled to track and make sense of our new reality with every tool and technique at their disposal, including satellite data.
As several comprehensive NASA-funded research projects get started, here is a quick roundup of some of the more interesting satellite-related findings about the science of coronavirus and its effects on the environment.
A Welcome Breath of Cleaner Air
Much of the news about the new coronavirus is grim, but observations of air quality offer a breath of fresh air. Several satellite sensors have detected drops in air pollutants — including nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and fine particles — following restrictions on travel and economic activity. Teams of scientists have spotted changes in China, Europe, the U.S. Northeast and Southeast, and India.
Look here for some tips on how to find and visualize changes in nitrogen dioxide, one of the gases that most clearly shows the effects of quarantines and economic shutdowns. Also, look here for nitrogen dioxide data for cities all around the world. But beware: As University of Georgia meteorologist Marshall Shepherd has pointed out, clouds and rain can create confusing changes in nitrogen dioxide that have nothing to do coronavirus restrictions.
A New Coronavirus Tracking Tool
Given how much the virus has changed daily life, many of us find ourselves turning into armchair epidemiologists, trying to make sense of how the virus is spreading and what it means for our local area. If you are interested in taking a close look at new data as it comes in, this simple-to-use mapping tool from NASA’s Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) might be of interest. It features demographic data, along with regularly updated information on reported global cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). There is a short user guide here.
A Stream of New Seasonality Studies
One of the key unknowns about the new coronavirus is whether environmental conditions — such as temperature, humidity, and exposure to ultraviolet light — have any effect on how the virus spreads or on the severity of the symptoms. NASA-funded researchers are starting to investigate this in several ways, while others are using NASA data in their models and analyses.
Billions of people are facing something that NASA astronauts have plenty of experience with—living in social isolation for long periods with just a few other people. Here are some tips from astronaut Anne McClain and psychologist Tom Williams.
More than 20 years ago, NASA scientist Ralph Kahn authored a column for the Los Angeles Times anticipating the launch of a new satellite — and ultimately a whole fleet of satellites — that would study Earth.
“We want a picture of Earth that is more specific about what is happening to the climate, which after all is what makes the planet habitable,” he wrote. And that picture needed to be rich with detail. “Precisely where are deserts encroaching on grasslands? In what regions is it raining more than usual? Exactly how much are glaciers shrinking, and at what rate is the sea level rising?” he asked.
“About every seven weeks, the satellite archives will receive as much data from EOS-AM as are held in all the volumes of the Library of Congress. And the EOS-AM satellite alone is supposed to keep pouring numbers down from the sky, relentlessly, for at least six years,” Kahn wrote.
Amazingly, all those numbers from Terra continue to pour down 20 years later. Over time, the flood of data from Terra and several other satellites has turned into scientific discoveries. Bit by bit, the questions Kahn initially posed in his column have been answered.
November 20th, 2019 by Lia Poteet, NASA Earth Science Division Applied Sciences Program
Camp managers and other officials overseeing Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh are now incorporating NASA satellite observations into their decision-making. Information like daily rain totals can help inform how to lay out refugee camps and how to store supplies. The goal is to reduce the risk to refugees from landslides and other natural hazards.
Since August 2017, more than 740,000 Rohingya refugees have fled from Myanmar (Burma) to Bangladesh. Many of them have sought shelter in camps in the hilly countryside, where landslide risks are greatest. When refugee camps were built in the southeastern part of the country, many plants and trees were removed — taking with them the roots that could hold the soil in place and help stabilize the landscape when heavy rains come.
Increasing this danger is Bangladesh’s intense monsoon season. Approximately 80 percent of the country’s yearly rain falls from June to October, bringing with it an increased risk of flash flooding and landslides. For instance, July 2019 storms dropped 14 inches of rain in just 72 hours, causing 26 landslides in Rohingya refugee camps around Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. One person was killed and more than 4,500 others were left without shelter.
“We have little information on landslides,” said Hafizol Islam, who is in charge of one of the most densely populated camps at Cox’s Bazar. “It is unpredictable for us and can happen at any time.”
Now Islam and other camp managers have access to maps and a website (updated daily) that provides near real-time NASA data on land use, rainfall, and elevation. Data come from the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites, among other sources. Taken together, these maps and data provide a clearer picture of when and where landslide hazards are concentrated.
“With landslides, flash floods, and rapid development, the terrain of these camps is constantly changing,” said Robert Emberson, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Emberson and other researchers from NASA’s Earth Applied Sciences Disasters Program and Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) are using new approaches to work alongside humanitarian end-users and develop products to address pressing needs in vulnerable settings. The partnership seeks the feedback of the local people affected and develops maps based on their input.
“We need to understand if, why, and when existing risk information is being used,” said Andrew Kruczkiewicz of IRI, one of the principal investigators of the project. “This strengthens the development of data services for humanitarian emergencies, where decisions and priorities change rapidly. Working in teams that bridge traditional professional and disciplinary boundaries gives data and climate scientists the opportunity to learn more about decision-making in specialized contexts.”
“The partnership with NASA and IRI helps the UN agencies to assess risks like landslides or flash flooding and supports the disaster management in a scientific way to save lives and reduce damages in the refugee camps,” said Cathrine Haarsaker, a project manager for UNDP Disaster Risk Management.
Emberson said seeing the camps in person brought home the importance of connecting with the people on the ground. “Working with satellite data can sometimes feel quite abstract and separate from the people within the images,” he said. “Visiting the camps not only helped us understand more about the specific problems associated with landsliding to help improve our models in the future, but also drove home the human side to this disaster, emphasizing the urgency of our work.”
October 4th, 2019 by Joe Atkinson, NASA Langley Research Center
Who knew that being a scientist could be as easy as pointing your phone at the sky? This month, NASA and the GLOBE Program are asking citizen scientists to take out their phones and report what kinds of clouds they see above them.
“What excites researchers about GLOBE observations is the ability to see what’s up in the sky from volunteers’ perspectives all over the world,” said Marilé Colón Robles, lead for the GLOBE Clouds Team at NASA’s Langley Research Center. “What our eyes can see is difficult to fully duplicate with instruments. Merging these views is what makes a complete and impactful story.”
“We want to do a data challenge in the fall and see if there are any differences from what was observed during the spring data challenge of 2018,” said Colón Robles. “From thin, high clouds that are hard for satellites to detect to dust storms that impact our daily lives, these observations play an important role in better understanding our atmosphere.”
At NASA, scientists work with a suite of satellite instruments known as the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES). Though they have these highly sensitive instruments, it can sometimes be difficult for scientists to distinguish features such as cirrus clouds from snow cover in their imagery because both are cold and bright from a satellite perspective. By comparing satellite images from a particular area with data submitted by citizen scientists, researchers can differentiate between the two.
Lucky GLOBE observers might make an observation while the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) is overhead. CALIPSO is a joint mission between NASA and the French space agency (CNES) that uses laser pulses to measure clouds and atmospheric aerosols. Citizen scientists who make observations at the same time and place as CALIPSO will receive an emailed satellite comparison of CALIPSO’s measurements showing features such as high clouds, dust, and smoke. Scientists are especially interested in these observations in order to improve their understanding of dust storms. During the challenge, make sure you turn on daily satellite notifications in the app or use this satellite overpass website to see the schedule for your location.
“Last year’s challenge gave researchers special glimpses into cloud types around the world,” said Colón Robles. “Photographs provided by observers gave insight into events such as dust storms and wildfires. Our hope is to once again learn from the community and together study our atmosphere.”
The 2018 data challenge, which took place in the spring, received more than 56,000 cloud observations from more than 15,000 locations in 99 countries and Antarctica.
NASA is a sponsor of GLOBE, an international science and education program that provides students and the public with the opportunity to participate in data collection and the scientific process. NASA GLOBE Observer is a free smartphone app that lets anyone make citizen science observations from the palm of their hand.
June 18th, 2019 by Laura Rocchio, Landsat Communication and Public Engagement Team
The UK’s Antarctic Place-names Committee has agreed that seven ice features in western Antarctica should be named for Earth-observation satellites. One of them is Landsat Ice Steam.
The new designations were announced on June 7, 2019. The ice features are all located in Western Palmer Land on the southern Antarctic Peninsula.
The seven features ring George VI Sound like pearls on a necklace. The new names, as officially entered into the British Antarctic Territory Gazetteer, are (from west to east): Landsat Ice Steam, ALOS Ice Rumples, Sentinel Ice Stream, GRACE Ice Stream, Envisat Ice Stream, Cryosat Ice Stream, and ERS Ice Stream.
The UK has submitted the new names for the fast-moving ice features to Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), which maintains a gazetteer or registry, of names officially adopted by individual nations. Under the Antarctic Treaty, signatory nations confer on geographic feature names, but each nation’s naming authority formally adopts new names. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names will meet in July and may discuss at that meeting whether the names adopted by the UK also will be adopted by the US. The question of using the term “glacier” for the ice features instead of “ice stream” is also part of each nation’s naming decision.
The new names were proposed by Anna Hogg, a glaciologist with the Center for Polar Observation and Modelling at the University of Leeds. In research published in 2017, Hogg found that glaciers draining from the Antarctic Peninsula were accelerating, thinning, and retreating, with implications for global sea level rise. The fast-moving glaciers that Hogg and colleagues tracked with radar and optical satellite imagery were unnamed. In her paper, the glaciers had to be designated by latitude and longitude.
Satellites had enabled Hogg and her team to clock the speed of these nameless ice features—some with rates faster than 1.5 meters/day. In tribute to the spaceborne instruments, Hogg came up with a way to describe the fast-moving ice features more succinctly—name them after the satellites that had helped her understand their behavior.
Hogg proposed to the U.K.’s Antarctic Place-names Committee that the features should be named for Landsat, Sentinel, ALOS PALSAR, ERS, GRACE, CryoSat, and Envisat. She was notified in early June that the committee had agreed to adopt the names, which provide a way to recognize international collaboration, as fifteen space agencies currently collaborate on Antarctic data collection.
“Satellites are the heroes in my science of glaciology,” Hogg told the BBC. “They’ve totally revolutionized our understanding, and I thought it would be brilliant to commemorate them in this way.”
Naming the glaciers after satellites is also a celebration of data fusion. “Our understanding of ice velocities and ice sheet mass balance has come from putting many different remote sensing data sets together—optical, radar, gravity, and laser altimetry,” said Jeff Masek, the NASA Landsat 9 Project Scientist. “Landsat has been a key piece in assembling that larger puzzle. Naming an ice stream after Landsat is a fitting way to recognize the value of long-term Earth Observation data for measuring changes in Earth’ polar regions.”
Read more from NASA’s Landsat science and outreach team, including the history of Antarctic observation with Landsat. Read more about all of the glaciers and their namesake satellites, as told by the European Space Agency. And read about the island discovered by and named for Landsat, and the woman who discovered it.
Correction, June 27, 2019: SCAR’s role in the Antarctic naming process was incorrectly described in the earlier version of this article. Updates were provided by Dr. Scott Borg, Deputy Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Geosciences, and Peter West, the Outreach Program managers for NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, to correctly describe the naming process.
In the early 19th century, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led an ambitious expedition across the western United States. They greatly expanded our knowledge of the country’s geography and biological diversity through their specimen collection, mapping of the landscape, and detailed journal entries.
This year NASA and the National Park Service are encouraging the public to follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark through a new citizen science challenge. From June 1 to September 2, citizens are invited to use their smart phones and the NASA GLOBE Observer app to map land cover along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail to assist scientists studying environmental changes.
Land cover–such as grass, pavement, or trees–influences the water and energy cycles and influences a community’s vulnerability to natural disasters. NASA studies land cover changes from space as part of its mission to better understand our planet and improve lives.
To participate in the “GO on a Trail” challenge, download the free GLOBE Observer app from the Apple App Store or Google Play. Use the Land Cover tool to make observations of the landscape. Any observation made along the 5,000-mile-long Lewis & Clark trail from Pittsburgh to the mouth of the Columbia River earns points. The top participants will receive recognition and GO on a Trail commemorative material.
A good place to get started is at an observation station marked with a large sticker (image above) at Lewis and Clark visitor centers and museums. To navigate to sites of interest along the trail, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and GLOBE Observer teams have provided an online map.
“We hope that by becoming involved with this project, people will care about the trail and become its stewards,” said Dan Wiley, chief of integrated resource stewardship for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Wiley notes that the challenge will both spark a general interest in science and show the public how it can be involved in collecting vital information for decision makers.
GLOBE Observer is an app-based citizen science program active in more than 120 countries. The program invites citizens to contribute land cover, cloud, mosquito, and tree height observations to NASA and the science community. NASA-funded scientists are eager to see citizen science observations of land cover along this trail because of its wide range of ecological regions. Data collected during the challenge could help improve satellite-based mapping of land cover across the continent.
“We are observing and monitoring our changing home planet from space to better understand how it is changing and what are the main drivers of change,” said Eric Brown de Colstoun, a scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “The view from the ground provided by the challenge participants is one component that helps us verify the space-based data.”
Even if you are not able to visit the Lewis and Clark Trail this summer, you can still join the GO on a Trail challenge from any of the more than 120 countries where GLOBE Observer is active. Just get outdoors and map the land cover around you. The top participants from beyond the trail will also receive recognition and commemorative material.
“Lewis and Clark and their team were exploring a totally new environment to them,” said Brown de Colstoun. “We invite you to get out and explore, and document the places you know and care about. Go on a trail and do science along with us.”
NASA GLOBE Observer and Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail will provide regular updates about the GO on a Trail challenge via social media throughout the summer with the hashtag #GOonaTrail. Follow GLOBE Observer on Facebook @nasa.globeobserver or Twitter @NASAGO. Follow the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail on Facebook @lewisandclarknht, Twitter @lewisclarktrail, and Instagram @lewisandclarknht or visit the website at: https://www.nps.gov/lecl/index.htm.
On April 29, 1999, NASA Earth Observatory (EO) started delivering science stories and imagery to the public through the Internet. So much has changed in those 20 years…
+ In 1999, about 3 to 5 percent of the world had Internet access. About 41 percent of American adults used the World Wide Web, most often to look at the weather. Today an estimated 56 percent of the world’s population (4.3 billion people) are active on the Internet.
+ At the end of the 20th century, all EO readers came to us through a computer, mostly desktops. One third of them were connecting via dial-up modem. Today, about 40 percent of our audience arrives to the web site via mobile phones and tablets on public wifi and cellular networks. Yet even now, 65,000 of our most loyal followers subscribe to our newsletters. Many others subscribe to our RSS feeds.
+ In 1999, “social” media mostly consisted of chatrooms and newsgroups. Even by 2005, only 5 percent of Americans were using social media. Today about 69 percent of adults use social media, and people are just as likely to see Earth Observatory content on social platforms as on our web site. Ten million people follow EO and NASA Earth science on Facebook, with 1.3 million more on Twitter, and 500,000 on Instagram.
+ When EO launched, images from Earth science satellites were generally available about a month after acquisition. Public access to science data and imagery was extremely limited, highly filtered, and sometimes required a fee. Two decades later, many NASA Earth science observations are available freely on the web within hours of acquisition.
+ On our first day online, the site got 400 pageviews–most of them were likely colleagues and relatives. Today we get about 50,000 views per day.
+ In our first year, we published 35 “Images of the Week” and 9 feature stories. By 2001, we started delivering an Image of the Day. Since launch, we have published more than 6,900 Images of the Day, 8,300 natural hazards images, and 450 features and videos. Yes, more than 15,000 image-driven stories, and all of them are still available in our archive.
+ In 1999, two members of our staff were in elementary school and three were in high school. The readers of EO Kids were not born yet.
The technology of science and the Internet has changed in a generation, and our site has evolved and grown with the changes. But our core values have not changed. You find us on more platforms and with some new approaches, but you can still count on us to deliver beautiful, newsworthy, interesting, and scientifically important images and stories. Our editorial team has more than 110 years of experience in science communication and data visualization, and we bring that depth of knowledge to every story, 365 days a year.
None of this would be possible without the many scientists, engineers, communicators, data hounds, patrons, and friends inside and outside of NASA who review our work, tip us off to stories and images, share their scientific insights, and inspire and challenge us. Thank you.
As we celebrate our 20th year, we are going to share some looks back and some looks ahead. In the next twelve months, look for…
EO on This Day – a chance to see some of the most memorable Images released on each day of the calendar year
If you have been with us for many (or all) of our 20 years, thank you. We have some of the most engaged, challenging, and thoughtful readers on the planet, and we work hard to live up to your trust and interest. If you are new to the site, bring a friend. We have 15,000 stories about Earth to share, with more being added every day.