Landsat 5 to Be Decommissioned After 29 Years of Service, Future of Program Still Cloudy

Landsat 5 to Be Decommissioned After 29 Years of Service, Future of Program Still Cloudy

Landsat 5, launched in 1984, has finally reached the end of its useful life after 29 years of service, vastly exceeding its three year design life. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which operates the Landsat satellites, announced this week that the venerable spacecraft would be decommissioned over the next several months after the recent failure of one of its gyroscopes.

NASA began what is now known as the Landsat program in 1972 with the launch of the Earth Resources Technology Satellite -1 (ERTS-1), later renamed Landsat 1. At least one Landsat satellite has been operational in orbit since then providing a 40-year data set on the ever changing land surface of the Earth. The data enable everything from crop forecasting to environmental monitoring using medium resolution sensors (15 meter resolution on today’s Landsat satellites).

Landsat 5’s decommissioning means that only Landsat 7 remains operational.  Launched in 1999, data from that satellite have been degraded since 2003 because of a failure in its scan line corrector.  The Landsat user community is anxiously awaiting the launch of the next in the series, alternatively called the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) or Landsat 8.  It is scheduled for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base atop an Atlas V rocket on February 11, 2013.

The future of the Landsat program beyond that is cloudy. NASA designed, built and launched Landsat 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.  The Carter Administration decided that the program was operational and ready to be privatized by transitioning it out of the government and into the private sector.  The Reagan Administration continued that effort and Congress passed the 1984 Land Remote-Sensing Commercialization Act to facilitate the transition.  A tumultous decade ensued including the loss of Landsat 6 in a launch accident and the failure of a commercial market to emerge to enable privatization to succeed.  The end result was that in order to ensure the continuity of this type of data, the Landsat program was brought back into the government.   The 1984 Act was repealed and replaced by the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act.  NASA and DOD were supposed to jointly build and launch Landsat 7, but DOD withdrew, leaving NASA to carry it out.   NASA then was charged with building and launching the next satellite, LDCM/Landsat 8.   The only portion of the program it has been able to transition to others so far is on-orbit operations, which were turned over to USGS, operator of the Landsat data archive in Sioux Falls, SD for decades.

In the FY2012 budget request, the Obama Administration proposed making USGS completely responsible for the Landsat program, with NASA serving only as the acquisition agent, the same relationship it has with NOAA on weather satellites.  USGS is part of the Department of the Interior, and the appropriations subcommittees that preside over its funding did not concur, worried that the expense of the program would negatively impact other USGS activities. 

Landsat’s fate has been in limbo ever since.  USGS Director Marcia McNutt said earlier this year that the Obama Administration is “full of fans of Landsat,” but that an affordable solution needs to be found.  The National Research Council is engaged in a study to make recommendations on  implementation of a sustainable land imaging program at the request of USGS.  The report is expected in March 2013.

Meanwhile, everyone has their fingers crossed that the upcoming launch of LDCM/Landsat 8 is successful.  Otherwise the continuity of the multi-decade data set provided by the Landsat series will be in jeopardy.

Correction:  The date for the launch of Landsat 8 has been corrected.  According to NASA, the launch is at 10:04 am Pacific Standard Time on Feb. 11, not on Feb. 10.

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