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An original purpose of the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center, 50 years ago when the facility was planted in the middle of farm fields, was to store and send out land remote sensing data to anyone in the world with an interest in using it.

1966-1979: How Sioux Falls Ingenuity Secured the Center

1966-1979: How Sioux Falls Ingenuity Secured the Center

1980-1999: Through Uncertainty to a Firm Footing

1980-1999: Through Uncertainty to a Firm Footing

2000-2023: Data and Science Surge

2000-2023: Data and Science Surge

Early data came from aerial photography and the first Landsat satellite, which launched in 1972. Over time, much more data has come along—including some in what you could call “a data center in a data center” in partnership with NASA.

NASA had kicked off its Mission to Planet Earth Program in 1989 with the goal of launching new Earth Observing System satellites. Part of the plan was to create Distributed Active Archive Centers to store and study the resulting data, each with a different focus, including the atmosphere, snow and ice, oceans, ecology and more.

photo from 1990 Planet Earth Inauguration
The dedication ceremony for the establishment of the Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center (LP DAAC). 

When it came to land cover and reflectance, NASA looked toward USGS EROS. EROS was a natural fit, with its focus on archiving and distributing land surface data. On August 28, 1990, USGS and NASA officials converged at EROS to formally announce the establishment of the Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center (LP DAAC).

During the dedication ceremony, the USGS and NASA flags were flown symbolically outside the EROS building entrance. The partnership between the agencies ended up transforming that entrance itself when the need arose for a new addition to the facility and a larger staff to handle the volume of data and work.

Plenty to Do Even Before Satellite Launches

Several years of planning led to the May 31, 1994, groundbreaking for the new addition, which would be connected to the original building with a central atrium, reception area and entrance. The same horse-drawn plow used for the 1972 groundbreaking of the existing building returned for the addition’s groundbreaking.

The planning included not just space for more computing power, people and archive data, but also infrastructure such as prototyping a distribution system that could connect to the other DAACs.

While the first Earth Observing System satellites and Landsat 7 weren’t expected to launch until the late 1990s to populate the LP DAAC with their data, the LP DAAC in the meantime received and provided access to existing datasets and helped develop new ones, which included involvement in the collaborative EROS effort to produce a global 1-km land cover dataset and a global digital elevation model.

Color photo of USGS EROS building addition in October 1994
Construction on the USGS EROS building addition  in October 1994.

The LP DAAC’s Data Distribution System, finished in February 1995, provided users with data before the new addition even opened. EROS held an informal open house April 20, 1996, to debut its new 65,000-square-foot, $9 million addition and attracted more than 4,000 visitors to tour it. Besides the atrium and reception area, the addition also contained a 283-seat auditorium, main level and basement computer rooms, training room, offices and basement archive space. A formal dedication ceremony was held August 19, 1996, with participants from the USGS, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which at the time was involved in the Landsat Program.

One of the most popular early requests to LP DAAC User Services was for data from the Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C (SIR-C), an instrument that flew on two Endeavour Shuttle missions in 1994, with more than 100 email requests coming in daily for SIR-C educational CD-ROMs at the end of fiscal year 1996. The instrument collected data on large-scale environmental processes including soil moisture content and soil erosion, ocean dynamics and volcanic activity.


The year 1999 was a busy one for the LP DAAC. Landsat 7 launched April 15, with the LP DAAC supporting pre- and post-launch activities, taking in collected data and distributing data. Then on December 18, Terra became the first platform in NASA’s Earth Observing System satellite series to launch. The LP DAAC had been preparing for this event since the 1990 announcement, and it finally was able to meet its intended purpose.

Processed land data from Terra’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instruments arrived for the LP DAAC to begin distributing. Two years later, NASA launched the Aqua satellite, which carried another MODIS instrument that provided data to the LP DAAC.

Satellite Image of the Great Lakes
A Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite image of the Great Lakes region.

Over a broad area, MODIS data could help quantify land surface characteristics such as land cover type and extent, snow cover extent, surface temperature, leaf area index and fire occurrence. ASTER data could help inform about vegetation and ecosystem dynamics, hazard monitoring, geology, soils, hydrology and land cover change.

Demand for the satellite data and related science products rose, and in fiscal year 2006, the LP DAAC distributed more than 65 TB of ASTER imagery and 295 TB of MODIS imagery—the equivalent of more than 76 million DVDs of data.

The LP DAAC saw a spike in interest following an announcement by NASA and Japan on June 29, 2009, about the release of ASTER’s Global Digital Elevation Model (GDEM), covering 99 percent of the Earth’s landmass and nicknamed the “Most Complete Topographic Map of the Earth.” Available through the LP DAAC, the GDEM attracted more than 41,000 people to the LP DAAC website in the first week.

Also in 2009, the LP DAAC celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Terra launch. During those 10 years, the LP DAAC had distributed 98 million Terra files to the public. And at about the same time, the effort to move storage of LP DAAC data online reduced the EROS computer room footprint of the Earth Observing System by half.

The MODIS data products have been reprocessed multiple times through the years to improve the consistency of data records, with those new versions coming into the LP DAAC as well. The number of unique data products derived from MODIS and ASTER at the LP DAAC had reached nearly 100 in 2011.

In 2015, the 25th anniversary of the USGS-NASA announcement, the LP DAAC contained 2 PB of remote sensing land data, distributing data to 120,000 users in 126 countries. MODIS and ASTER data had helped with post-fire assessments, glacier change, long-term land cover monitoring, mineral mapping and food security evaluations, to name just a few applications. EROS scientists are among those around the world who have used the data.

Helping Users and Looking Ahead to Changes

Helping researchers and other data users more easily access and use the data, including the creation of tools, has always been a priority for the LP DAAC. Before the LP DAAC was even up and running, a science advisory panel was established to help guide programs and activities. Upon the panel’s recommendation, the LP DAAC hosted a workshop in 1996 to introduce the land science user community to LP DAAC information systems and gather their recommendations. The LP DAAC has presented workshops and poster sessions and participated in conferences and outreach events. Training, informational and scientific use case videos have been another resource for the public.

Remote sensing image of surface temperatures in the Los Angeles area
This temperature map shows the land surface temperatures throughout Los Angeles County on Aug. 14, 2020, as measured by NASA's Ecosystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS). The hottest temperatures are shown in dark red, with the coolest temperatures in blue. ECOSTRESS data is available through the LP DAAC at EROS. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The LP DAAC User Working Group, the current name of its advisory panel, continues to provide advice and direction for the team at EROS. “That advice that we get from them is just critical. It might be some of the most important actionable advice that we get throughout the year,” said LP DAAC Project Manager Chris Torbert at EROS.

For example, the LP DAAC released the Application for Extracting and Exploring Analysis Ready Samples (AppEEARS) tool in 2016 to offer the public a simple way to access and select the data they need, with functionality added courtesy of a User Working Group request.

Today, the LP DAAC distributes a wide variety of data in addition to ASTER and MODIS, including Harmonized Landsat Sentinel-2 and instruments on the International Space Station such as ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) and Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT).

Soon, the LP DAAC archive data will take up very little space at EROS. The process of transitioning its storage to the cloud is expected to be complete within a few years. But the team at EROS will still have plenty of work to do, providing data access and helping users make the most of the growing number of data products.

The LP DAAC is also looking forward to welcoming new data from a proposed future NASA mission, Surface Biology and Geology (SBG), which would apply imaging spectroscopy and thermal infrared imagery to surface land and water, including ecosystems, volcanoes, geology and more.

“The first 30 years of the LP DAAC, everybody identified us as sort of the MODIS/ASTER DAAC. … And MODIS is at end of life,” Torbert said. “Going forward, the future of the DAAC is this SBG mission, so we’re really excited to be looking forward to what we can do with that data. It’s going to bring new challenges for sure.”

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