NASA and USGS Planning for "Sustained and Sustainable" Landsat Program

NASA and USGS Planning for "Sustained and Sustainable" Landsat Program

As the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) took command of Landsat 8 yesterday, USGS and NASA officials stressed that planning already is underway for follow-on satellites.   NASA’s Mike Freilich vowed that the agencies will pursue a “sustained and sustainable” program for obtaining Landsat-like data for decades to come.

Landsat 8 is the most recent in a 40-year series of satellites collecting medium-resolution imagery of the Earth’s surface.  The program has had a tortuous path since the first five were built and launched by NASA in the 1970s and early 1980s.   An effort to privatize Landsat in the Carter and Reagan Administrations failed as did the launch of Landsat 6.  The program was brought back into the government under the joint auspices of NASA and DOD, but DOD withdrew, leaving NASA to pay for Landsat 7 and Landsat 8 (formerly the Landsat Data Continuity Mission),   Meanwhile, USGS took responsibility for operating the satellites once in orbit in addition to its long-standing role in disseminating the data from the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center in Sioux Falls, SD.  In 2008, the decision was made to make the data available for free, dramatically increasing its utilization.

The Obama Administration wanted USGS to take over responsibility for the Landsat program in its entirety, including funding future satellites, but Congress said no because it was concerned the costs would overwhelm other USGS priorities.   In the FY2014 budget request, the Administration is proposing that NASA take the lead in ensuring there is no break in the 40-year (to date) continuous data set provided by Landsat satellites.

At a press conference at the EROS center yesterday marking USGS assuming control of Landsat 8, USGS Associate Director for Climate and Land Use Matt Larsen said the FY2014 budget request demonstrates that the Obama Administration “fully supports an ongoing, sustained Landsat program.”    

Freilich went further, emphasizing that the Administration is “committed to a sustained and sustainable global land imaging program” that will “draw upon the ideas and approaches that the NASA and USGS team, singular, working together have developed… as we engineer over the next several months the plan for this sustainable, multi-decadal program.”   Future satellites will have “at least the capabilities that Landsat 7 and now Landsat 8 are providing,” he added.

Acting USGS Director Suzette Kimball noted that it is a significant change to move from a program that has existed one satellite at a time to a “programmatic focus” where they are working not just on Landsat 9, but “to continue this decades into the future.”

Freilich said NASA and USGS already have held discussions and identified people to serve on a steering committee to determine how to proceed with the future of the program.

Landsat 8 was launched in February.  It has been undergoing an on-orbit checkout phase under NASA’s direction for the past three months, but yesterday moved into its operational phase with USGS now in control.

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