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For the first time ever, the commands to operate the Landsat 8 and Landsat 9 satellites came directly from the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in December 2022.

USGS EROS began serving as a backup Landsat Multi-Satellite Operations Center (bLMOC) for the primary LMOC systems at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in 2021—the only LMOC site outside of Goddard. Adding the backup center at EROS required equipping it with terminals, equipment racks, servers, firewalls and security equipment, along with network connectivity with Goddard.  If circumstances at Goddard were to ever disrupt that facility’s prime and backup LMOC systems, team members would be able to come to EROS and perform the same operational tasks, such as oversight of automated processes and addressing issues that arise.

“Prior to standing up the bLMOC at EROS, the alternative operations centers for Landsat missions could potentially be affected by the same regional disruption that impacts the primary location. Having a geographically separated backup location is vital to continuity of operations,” said Joe Blahovec, USGS Chief of the Satellite and Ground Systems Operations Branch at EROS.

This first exercise in “failing over” or transferring satellite operations from Goddard to EROS went well. Three members of the USGS Landsat 8 and 9 Flight Operations Team visiting from Goddard used the EROS system to manage the satellites the afternoon of December 6, 2022, to the afternoon of December 8.

“This exercise demonstrates that the team’s hard work has successfully created a Landsat mission contingency capability at EROS that benefits both the mission and its user community,” Blahovec said.

Goals of the Exercise

Three people pose next to a mockup of part of a satellite
Landsat 8 and 9 Flight Operations Team members include (from left) Danny Dupree, Mark Leadingham and Kim Brandenburg, shown here in the USGS Earth Resources and Observation Science (EROS) Center atrium. Photo credit: USGS

The process involved more than just the flip of a switch, as described by the visiting team members, contractors Kim Brandenburg, Operations Lead; Danny Dupree, Operations Engineer; and Mark Leadingham, Ground System Engineer.

After they walked through the EROS doors that Tuesday morning and entered the room containing their equipment, they checked to be sure they could access the commanding terminals that give them immediate access to the satellites. They also had to ensure that their alerting and notification system failed over to the bLMOC correctly—the system that lets them step away from their computers on evenings and weekends and texts them about spacecraft alerts. That part took a little longer than expected, but that succeeded, too.

The team’s efforts at EROS involved making sure they had two successful days of contacts with ground stations and also successfully scheduling a load to uplink for each satellite. A load is like a package of commands for four days to instruct the satellite on the timing and performance of particular tasks—imaging, for example, and turning on and off the transmitter. A new load is uplinked every two days but contains four days’ worth of commands.

“We always think a little bit more forward than we need to just in case,” Leadingham said.

‘The Spacecraft Didn’t Even Notice’

“We would say it’s a success,” Brandenburg said. “Everything’s doing really well. We haven’t had any major hiccups. The spacecraft didn’t even notice.”

They had certain procedures lined up to follow, and Dupree took notes about alterations they made or efficiencies that could be built in for the future.

“We had a lot of lessons learned, but it’s all pretty minor stuff—stuff that we were able to work through, just to make it smoother next time,” Dupree said.

The team plans to return to EROS biannually for this same type of exercise. This trip marked their first visit to the South Dakota facility, and they found it helpful to understand better how the Landsat Ground Station operates at EROS and to meet in person the people they typically communicate with virtually. They participate in a morning meeting each weekday with the EROS Landsat Ground Station crew.

During their tour of EROS, the team appreciated seeing so many examples on display of the imagery they work with and enjoyed a visit to the radome to see the 10-meter antenna inside that downlinks Landsat data. “It was really cool that they actually turned it for us so we could see it move,” Brandenburg said.

Keith Alberts, USGS Landsat Flight Operations Project Manager at EROS, reflected on the path that has led to the team’s visit.

“The effort to have a backup MOC at EROS started a very long time ago.  It’s exciting to see the culmination of many people’s hard work of planning, integrating, and testing now result in the successful operation of Landsat 8 and Landsat 9 from the bLMOC at EROS,” Alberts said.

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