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Landsat satellites 8 and 9 orbit at 438 miles above the Earth’s surface and collect imagery that is used to improve the quality of our lives. Continuing a half-century legacy of the Landsat Program, the satellites help governments, land managers and scientists monitor water quality, crop production, forest health, growing cities, changes to our coastlines and much more. 

But what’s next? How will Landsat, a joint program between the U.S. Geological Survey and NASA, keep its valuable continuity while improving to meet the world’s needs of tomorrow?

The next Landsat mission, aptly called Landsat Next, is targeted to reach orbit in about 2030 with not one but three new satellites collecting data in greater detail and frequency than their predecessors. Launch may be a few years away, but many people are already busy working to prepare for the launch and prepare for the large amount of data that will be coming.

We talked with a variety of these people recently for two new Eyes on Earth podcast episodes focused on Landsat Next preparations. In Part 1, we learn about how the Landsat Next mission will be different from previous Landsat missions and its benefits to science and society. Part 2 has some more technical information about the ground system and plans for processing and validating the data.

Earth surrounded by illustration of satellite passes with a white label and three mugshots overlaying it
Zhuoting Wu (from left), Chris Crawford and Tim Newman

Guests for Part 1 were Tim Newman, Zhuoting Wu and Chris Crawford, all of the USGS. Newman is the Program Coordinator for National Land Imaging, providing policy guidance and oversight of activities ranging from flying satellites, distributing data and developing science to working on the budget and with partnerships. Wu is the Earth Observation Applications Coordinator for National Land Imaging, overseeing the science portfolio for the program and coordinating science activities with other agencies’ programs. Crawford is a Research Physical Scientist based at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center who serves as a Project Scientist for Landsat Next.

In this Q&A based on edited Eyes on Earth episode comments, Newman, Wu and Crawford describe more about what the Landsat Next mission involves.

Landsat Next 101

QUESTION: What are the big differences going to be between previous Landsat missions and Landsat Next?

NEWMAN: We’ve been managing Landsat missions since the ’70s, so it really has been a succession of satellite systems that have gotten progressively better with every generation. Landsat Next is going to be more capable than Landsats 8 and 9, meeting far more user needs. It’s going to collect more detailed imagery more often for characterizing the Earth’s surface as it changes. These include applications across the farm belt, ranches, urban areas, coastal areas and many other areas impacted by drought and wildfire. But at the same time, we’re going to sustain that 50-year archive of data that we’ve collected from Landsat. 

Q: How will Landsat Next capture more detail?

NEWMAN: Landsat Next is going to have three satellites built and launched together, flying in formation. They’ll achieve a 6-day revisit over any spot on the Earth’s surface. Today’s Landsats, with two of them up there, we get about an 8-day revisit. We’re flying a little bit lower, a lower orbit, so that’s going to give us better spatial resolution. Instead of 30 meters, we’re going to be able to see down to 10 meters for some of our spectral bands. That’s exciting because it gives you more information on what’s happening on the Earth’s surface. The imaging instruments are called the Landsat Next Instrument Suite, or LandIS. LandIS is going to have 26 spectral bands compared to today’s Landsats that have 11 bands each. 

Q: Why does the world need Landsat Next?

NEWMAN: The world is continually changing. Our science and applications have to change to meet those changes. We have to be able to see the many changes that are happening on the Earth’s surface. If you go back to when we launched the first Landsat satellite, the population of the Earth was maybe 4 billion at most. Today we have 8 billion people. There’s been enormous stresses on our natural resources, ecosystems, agriculture and cities, and the Landsat record allows you to go back and see those stresses, see the changes on the Earth’s surface that have been happening for the last 50 years. That data is really important for making decisions about policies related to natural resources development and our economy.

Q: How is Landsat Next important to you and me?

NEWMAN: Landsat Next represents the first time in the history of Landsat that we started a mission with a user needs campaign. We went out for over a year and talked to folks all across the user community. We tried to understand, how would you use this system to meet your needs? What are your breakthrough needs when it comes to agriculture, monitoring your fields, forestry, water resources, responding to disasters and urbanization? We spent a lot of time with those users to understand what is it that you really need in the future system, and we added those capabilities to this mission so we can meet those needs. We think with this new system, we’re going to be able to monitor crop health and consumptive water use more frequently and at smaller scales—subfield scales. That data is going to help farmers economize their water use and fertilizer, which will lead to more efficient and productive crop yields. That’s going to preserve water resources and improve our ecosystems. All those are big benefits that we’re going to realize once Landsat Next is operational.

Q: The intention is for Landsat Next to be made publicly available, as all the other Landsat data is?

NEWMAN: Correct. That’s one of the foundations of Landsat, in the last decade, is free and open data, so everyone can get access to it now and in the future. You can rely on it for your applications and build it into your work processes. It’s completely free and open data for everyone to benefit from.

Spectral bands for Landsat 8-9 and Landsat Next
A comparison of the bands on Landsat 8 and Landsat 9 with the planned bands on Landsat Next.

Science Benefits of Improved Data 

Q: How will the quicker revisit time benefit science?

CRAWFORD: I think it’s fair to say that all Landsat science applications, both traditional and emerging, will benefit from increased temporal imaging. But the applications that track fast-changing surface processes stand to benefit the most. So, for example, for agriculture, Landsat Next will improve spectral discrimination between different crop types, be able to capture key periods of greening and senescence in plants, often referred to as phenology, and then map agricultural practices that modulate soil health and the impacts of wet-dry cycles related to weather and climate variability. Other benefits of Landsat Next temporal imaging include mapping mountain snow cover patterns and processes such as melt onset or mapping the impurity concentrations on the surface layer, such as dust or soot, which requires frequent observations and additional spectral sampling during the late winter and spring to initialize hydrological forecast of water quantity in reservoirs, for example. Improved temporal imaging will also increase the number of clear images in Earth regions that have persistent cloudiness, such as tropical mountain and maritime environments.

Q: What are some examples of benefits from the higher resolution?

CRAWFORD: Landsat Next’s higher spatial resolution will improve the boundary delineation between specific land cover types. Landsat Next will be able to resolve within agricultural field process and patterns such as small agricultural parcels versus large agricultural parcels. Landsat Next will be able to resolve smaller water bodies and shorelines and really improve the ability to map smaller scale biomass burning that currently contributes an unknown amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gas emissions.

Q: What are scientists looking forward to the most with the additional spectral bands?

WU: Landsat Next will provide double the amount of spectral bands on Landsats 8 and 9, so what we call superspectral versus the multispectral on Landsats 8 and 9. A lot of effort from the USGS user needs activity went into identifying these key specific spectral bands to support new and emerging applications. I feel like the whole user community is excited about these additional spectral bands. Water quality is a key priority application. Landsat Next added several targeted spectral bands to detect those pigments in water as key indicators of harmful algal bloom for early detection and warning; also for cryosphere, applications looking at snow and ice. It’s also a targeted application area for those new spectral bands, where we’ll be able to retrieve three phases of water from Landsat Next by having the water vapor, the liquid water and ice absorption for hydrological applications. We also work closely with experts in USGS and USDA to identify the narrow spectral bands to quantify crop residue, which will help USDA monitor soil conservation practices. The thermal infrared region we are improving from 2 to 5 channels on Landsat Next, so that will help us have better, more accurate temperature retrieval. This will benefit urban heat and water use monitoring. Additional thermal bands will also provide information for mineral type and surface composition. Everyone will benefit from these additional spectral bands, and I’m sure there will be new uses and innovative science coming out of this superspectral Landsat Next that we don’t even know right now. 

Q: Who helped inform you about user needs for Landsat Next?

WU: Landsat Next is under partnership between USGS and NASA. USGS is responsible for collecting user community needs to help inform the Landsat Next architecture. So not only do we reach out to users, talk to them to understand their applications and needs, and then provide that information back to the USGS-NASA Landsat Next team, but we’re also building that relationship and advocacy and excitement from the science user community. They love to talk to us about their uses, their needs, and then we’re also engaged heavily with the Landsat Science Team for academia input. We also got some state and local input from AmericaView. We convened a federal agency expert panel. We also got nonfederal input from the Landsat Advisory Group. It’s truly a collective team effort from users from all communities who are just so passionate about the Landsat program and the future of Landsat.

Infographic on Landsat provided $3.45 billion in benefits to global economies in 2017 compared to $2.19 billion in 2011.
A study determined an economic value for the Landsat Program.

Value Nationally and Globally

Q: Will Landsat Next offer more possibilities for further innovation?

CRAWFORD: Yeah, absolutely. With the current generation of technology that’s occurring out there now, if you start combining the frequent revisits from Landsat Next with the Sentinel-2 system and then all the imaging spectroscopy demonstration missions that are flying now and being planned, the data volumes are going to be absolutely incredible.

NEWMAN: The new capabilities for Landsat Next are going to definitely improve global science and applications, and we do that in concert with our partners across the federal civil government, like NASA and NOAA; the commercial sector; and international organizations from all around world. Our satellites and products are becoming more interoperable with those foreign partners and other types of satellites. That means users will be able to take our data and also take data from other systems because there are so many other Earth observation systems up there today. So that essentially gives users a lot more data to use for their applications and amplifies both national and global science and environmental and resource management.

Q: What is the value, or the return on investment, that Landsat has delivered and will continue to deliver to U.S. and world economies?

NEWMAN: Building, launching and operating these missions is really a huge undertaking. It takes many years from the original designs to building the hardware to launching and operating these missions. But the good news is there are so many economic and societal benefits that come from Landsat being an operational capability. Landsat data is infrastructure that’s used by private citizens, the commercial sector, academia and training for our remote sensing students out there in colleges. Studies have shown that the economic benefit just to the United States from Landsat is on the order of \$2 billion a year. It even goes beyond that globally—the estimate is almost \$4 billion a year. So that societal return far exceeds the amount of investment that’s needed by NASA and USGS as we build these systems. The fact that the systems are relied upon to increase our food security, to respond to disasters and many other societal benefits makes this a great return on investment from the American taxpayer.

Preparations and Partnerships

Q: What needs to be done before launch?

NEWMAN: We’re at the beginning stages of this effort with our partners at NASA, so NASA and USGS together develop these missions. NASA focuses on satellite design and build and launch. We focus on the ground system, how to operate the satellite and then collect, archive, process and distribute the data. We’re in what’s called phase A. We’re refining the mission concept, the triplet satellites, and evaluating what technologies we’ll need to make sure the mission is a success. A lot of studies go on in this phase that will allow us to make decisions as to what’s the right way to build this mission, the different components. The Landsat Next Instrument Suite procurement is in its final stages, so hopefully this summer we’ll be moving in to buy the instruments that will be part of this next mission. The spacecraft bus that the instruments ride on will be next year, so we’re on track.

Q: How will partnerships influence the success of Landsat Next?

NEWMAN: From the very beginning, Landsat has been an international activity. We used international partners to develop ground stations around the world. Those ground stations would collect the Landsat data as it flew overhead and then provide the data to us, sometimes shipping tapes to us in the old days and then doing it electronically in current days. The countries then get real-time access to the observations, so it helps them be more knowledgeable in management of their local resources. But it also increases our ability to collect and manage the data from a global dataset like Landsat. So our partners are probably working more closely today than ever. We have been integrating our datasets across Europe, Australia, the Americas, India and Africa. Our work with those partners helps us access more data than just Landsat and provides that data back to our U.S. users. So we can leverage the expertise of these other countries that have datasets like ours, and that in turn helps us do better science. More data means better science.

Find more information and updates on progress with the Landsat Next mission here.


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