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Since the launch of the first Landsat satellite more than 50 years ago, scientists, government agencies and the public have found value and fascination in the imagery of the Earth’s land surface.

Originally, they had to pay for Landsat scenes to see what was on the land in their backyard or halfway around the world to understand more about agriculture, forests, urban areas, surface water, coastlines, wildfires and other disasters. As the archive deepened, it had much to reveal about change over time—but research tended to be severely constrained by budget limits for purchasing data.

In 2008, the USGS made a decision that changed the entire remote sensing realm. April 21, 2023, marks the 15th anniversary of the USGS announcement setting a timeline to release, at no charge, all Landsat data from the archive stored at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center—at the time, more than 2 million scenes. This action followed the Landsat Data Distribution Policy making Landsat imagery available to the public at no cost, signed in January 2008 by Barb Ryan, the Associate Director for Geography at the USGS, and Michael Freilich, NASA’s Director of the Earth Science Division.

Video Transcript
Barbara Ryan talks about the distribution of Landsat data, starting in 1972, and ultimately transitioning to the open data policy.

When the USGS released the data at no cost for users, the archive’s true value could be realized. Complex research could look at every Landsat scene in an area over a year, five years, even decades and scrutinize the changes in land cover. It could compare vast areas, like regions of the United States, the whole country, or even the world; changes in forests and surface water extent have been mapped for the entire globe. Suddenly, the only limits were a scientist’s or organization’s imagination and computing capability.

The Landsat open data policy “started the era of people using the data they needed, not the data they could afford. Single scenes aren’t enough to capture the diversity on the landscape,” said former EROS Chief Scientist Tom Loveland in an article for the 2022 Joint Agency Commercial Imagery Evalution—Remote Sensing Satellite Compendium summing up 50 years of remote sensing for Landsat’s 50th anniversary. “To me, from 2008 forward is when Landsat really started achieving the expectations, the potential, that was envisioned … in the 1960s.”

The soaring number of downloads from the EROS archive proved that interest was high. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2001, the year of highest Landsat distribution before the open data policy took effect, 25,000 scenes were delivered. In FY 2009, more than 1 million scenes were downloaded. Now, more than 160 million Landsat Level-1 scenes have been downloaded since the opening of the archive that contains more than 10 million Landsat scenes. In addition, over 13 petabytes of Landsat Level-1 data have been accessed from the commercial cloud since 2020.

Benefits and Development

A 2017 USGS study determined the total annual economic benefits of Landsat data in the United States to be \$2.06 billion and in the world to be \$3.45 billion. The decision to open up the Landsat archive influenced how other satellite programs, such as Europe’s Copernicus program, provided access to their data, too, contributing even more economic and scientific value to the world.

Landsat Scene Downloads from USGS EROS Inventory since 2008
This graphic displays the millions of Landsat Level-1 downloads, from 2008 to March 2023. 

In 2008, EROS had to design adaptations for customer access and for streamlining the processing of requested data. In the 15 years since, EROS staff have developed tools and products to make the data even more useful for scientists, especially for large-scale projects. The Landsat U.S. Analysis Ready Data (ARD) and other science products eliminate processing steps for scientists interested in time-series research. In addition, EROS has reprocessed the entire Landsat archive to offer the highest data quality possible. For more than a decade, EROS also has been working to add to the digital archive unique early Landsat data that previously sat in storage at International Cooperator sites around the world.

The Landsat archive has “changed people’s views of the planet,” said Ryan in a 2018 USGS EROS “Landsat in Action” video. “We’ve got to look at the data, we’ve got to look at how these changes are occurring if we’re going to take any appropriate management actions for whatever—land degradation, water use, energy consumption. And so it’s changed people’s view of how the Earth is changing. The data policy for Landsat was a paradigm shift for the world. There’s no doubt about it.”

Read more about the effect the open data policy had on Landsat distribution and citations here.

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