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June 11, 2012
Landsat Has Many Fans, But Needs

By Marcia S. Smith, editor,


The Landsat land remote sensing satellite program is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary onJuly 23, 2012. While users remain enthusiastic about current Landsat data and the long-term data set enabled by continuous operation of similar instruments over four decades, the program's future is cloudy. Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), said earlier this year that the Obama administration is "full of fans of Landsat," but that an affordable solution must be found to continue this satellite series.


A Potential Data Gap

McNutt spoke at a briefing on the FY2013 $1.1 billion budget request for USGS, which is a $35 million increase from FY2012. The request included $53.3 million for USGS activities related to operating and disseminating data from Landsat 5 and 7, the two satellites now in orbit, and developing the ground system for the next in the series, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), commonly called Landsat 8. NASA is funding the development and launch of the LDCM spacecraft, which is scheduled to launch in January 2013.

But what comes next? The Landsat user community has grown tremendously since the data were made available for free in 2008. The medium-resolution (30 meter and 15 meter) data from Landsat satellites have little commercial value compared with the high-resolution (less than 1 meter) data available from companies like GeoEye and DigitalGlobe.

Nonetheless, the data are critical for many applications, especially in agriculture and land use studies. The Landsat program has endured a tumultuous programmatic history and survives largely because of a strong and vocal user base.

Users now are worried about two gaps in data acquisition: between now and when Landsat 8 is operational—considering Landsat 5 and 7 are failing—and beyond the expected operational life of Landsat 8, which has a five-year design lifetime. Landsat 5 and 7 have operated long past their design lifetimes, but users can’t bank on that happening with future satellites. Landsat 5, launched in 1984, had its operations suspended last fall, following an electronics failure. Landsat 7, launched in 1999, has experienced data degradation since 2003 
because of a failure in its scan line corrector.


Who Should Be in Charge?

In the FY2012 budget request, the Obama administration proposed transferring the entire Landsat program to USGS, which would take responsibility for developing requirements and funding development, launch and operation of future satellites. USGS is willing to take on the role, but Congress rejected the plan because of concerns about negative impacts on other parts of the USGS budget. Congress gave USGS only $2 million in FY2012 for studies related to the next in the series, Landsat 9.

For FY2013, however, USGS isn’t even requesting $2 million to keep level with FY2012. According to Matt Larsen, USGS associate director for Climate and Land Use Change, only $250,000 is in the budget proposal for Landsat 9 studies.

USGS requested the National Research Council to conduct a study and make recommendations on how to implement a sustained land imaging program. In addition, USGS  is working with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on how to craft an affordable program that would keep the Department of the Interior in the lead, because “everyone is still convinced” USGS is the agency that best understands the user community, McNutt said.

The biggest concern about putting USGS in charge of future Landsats is that the satellite program will overwhelm other USGS priorities. NOAA, which operates the nation’s weather satellites and certain environmental satellites, currently faces a similar challenge.

Forty percent of NOAA’s FY2013 budget request is for satellite systems, imperiling programs for fisheries, coastal zone management and the breadth of other agency programs. To protect the rest of NOAA and express its overall dissatisfaction with how NOAA manages satellite programs, the Senate Appropriations Committee is recommending that NOAA’s satellite programs be transferred to NASA.

This is directly opposite of the approach the Obama administration prefers.  It wants the same agency that sets the requirements for satellite systems to be the agency that makes the tough priority decisions when fighting for dollars to meet those requirements. NASA already is the acquisition agent for NOAA’s satellites. NOAA knows its user communities and sets the requirements, gets the money from the White House and Congress, and reimburses NASA for acquiring the spacecraft. That was the approach the Obama administration proposed for USGS and Landsat, but Congress rejected it.


Time Is Running Out

With planning in limbo for a follow-on spacecraft after the five-year planned life of Landsat 8, the need for the White House to make a decision is imperative and becomes more so each day. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is unlikely to take on the issue in an election year. The latest rumors are that it will only announce a process to eventually make a decision. Whatever course it chooses will need congressional approval, further delaying final resolution.

For now, successfully launching Landsat 8 in January 2013 is of key importance. The highly reliable Atlas 5 will be used, so everyone is optimistic the launch won’t share the fate of Landsat 6 or NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory or GLORY missions, all of which are at the bottom of the Pacific. Perhaps once Landsat 8 is in orbit and its five-year design lifetime clock starts ticking, the program’s future will receive the attention it needs and deserves.                                                                        


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