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Adding a new satellite to the Landsat Program is no small task, even if the satellite is supposed to be a copy of its older sibling. Working to ensure that the data from Landsat 9 meets or exceeds the quality of data from Landsat 8 takes a dedicated team paying attention to the smallest details.

NASA has recognized the contributions of the Landsat 9 calibration/validation team with the Robert H. Goddard Award—Science.

The combined Landsat Cal/Val Team is led by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center and also includes South Dakota State University, Rochester (New York) Institute of Technology, the University of Arizona, and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Also included in the award for Landsat 9 efforts is the Operational Land Imager team at Ball Aerospace.

“It’s an entire team honor,” said Cody Anderson, manager for the USGS EROS Cal/Val Team. “It takes a pretty impressive, large, dedicated, motivated team to pull this off.”

Years of preparation preceded the September 2021 launch of Landsat 9 by NASA. That was followed by a hectic phase of calibration and correction before the USGS could first release the new satellite’s data in February 2022.

“We were able to collect all the data with the observatory, transfer it to the ground stations, transfer it all to EROS, and process and make it available to the public that’s been waiting nine years or so for it,” Anderson said.

color illustration of Landsat 8/Landsat 9 underfly
Landsat 9 flew beneath Landsat 8 as part of the calibration process for the newer satellite, launched on Sept. 27, 2021. 

The process went pretty smoothly, he added. Given Landsat 9’s similarity with Landsat 8, “we knew a lot of what to expect from the data side.” Radiometric and geometric issues with the instruments had been seen and fixed with the earlier satellite, too.

“The real challenge for us this time around was the 3- to 5-day underfly, where Landsat 9 was imaging the same area as Landsat 8 at the same time. That couple of days required a lot of effort from everyone involved in Landsat 9, not just the Cal/Val Team. That event allowed Cal/Val to make Landsat 9 data agree with the entire Landsat archive at a high level, as soon as the data were made available to the public,” Anderson said.

Cal/Val Work Continues

Although operation of Landsat 9 transitioned from NASA to the USGS in August, the overall Landsat Cal/Val Team is “pretty continuous,” Anderson said. They hold weekly meetings virtually, and twice a year they attend in-person Technical Interchange Meetings.

“We have three missions still operating and collecting data, which is more than we’ve ever had before,” Anderson said. Those missions include Landsat 7’s extended science mission at a lower orbit. The team is also looking ahead toward the next Landsat mission, Landsat Next.

Group of people standing posing, while mugshots are superimposed toward the bottom
The calibration and validation team members at USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) who won a NASA Robert H. Goddard award for their work with Landsat 9.

The Goddard Space Flight Center has presented Robert H. Goddard awards for exceptional achievement since 1961. In addition to Anderson, honorees at USGS EROS include USGS employees Michael Choate, Esad Micijevic and Jeff Irwin, and KBR contract employees Jerad Shaw, Kathryn Ruslander, Rajagopalan Rengarajan, James Storey, Md. Obaidul Haque, Mark Lubke, Pasquale Scaramuzza, Mahesh Shrestha, Josh Mann and Emily Maddox. When he learned about the award, Anderson gathered as many people as possible at EROS for a group photo to send to NASA Goddard, and then they went out to dinner to celebrate.

“We really see ourselves as the caretakers of the data,” Anderson said of the Landsat Cal/Val Team. “A lot of people talk about the gold standard of Landsat. There’s a lot of work to make sure that that is maintained.”

EROS hosted a Landsat Science Team meeting in August, where Anderson talked to members who represent the Landsat user community. “Getting the data in their hands and hearing their reactions has really been great. We’re continuing Landsat’s legacy,” he said.

The award citation for the Landsat Cal/Val Team agreed: “The on-orbit performance of Landsat-9 instruments continues to meet or exceed that of its predecessor Landsat instruments, thereby insuring the over-50-year data continuity legacy of the Landsat program, thanks to the great work of the Landsat Calibration and Validation Team.”

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