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Along the way to its unparalleled 50 years of Earth observations, the Landsat Program contributed to many firsts in remote sensing. Thanks to Landsat applications, people could identify the crops growing infields. They could see the boundaries of forests, urban areas, wetlands, fields, and grasslands. They could tell how much water irrigation was using. Here are some notable achievements.

Black and white photo of rocket on launch pad
A Delta rocket containing Landsat 1, then called Earth Resources Technology Satellite, or ERTS, sits on the launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in July 1972. NASA photo

Landsat 1: Originally named Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS), the first Landsat launched July 23, 1972, as the first satellite explicitly designed to study the Earth’s surface. 

MSS Sensor: The Multispectral Scanner, or MSS, aboard Landsat 1 was the first Earth observation satellite sensor in space. Designed by “Mother of Landsat” Virginia Norwood, the MSS started out as a secondary instrument on Landsat 1, but it and its data outperformed the primary instrument. 

Landsat 5: This particular satellite was designed to provide imagery for three years. It launched March 1, 1984, and sent back data for nearly 29 years, earning it the Guinness World Record title of Longest Operating Earth Observation Satellite. 

New Discoveries: Landsat imagery has led to the discovery of an unknown island, several butterfly species, and mineral deposits. The island off the northeastern coast of Labrador actually bears the name Landsat Island.

Agricultural Monitoring: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service began the first effort to monitor crop production globally when Landsat 1 launched. Because of this and additional crop monitoring efforts, the USDA is the “first and longest-running operational land-imaging satellite user” in the United States. Read more about it here.

NLCD 2016 Land Cover map of the conterminous United States
National Land Cover Database land cover for the conterminous United States, represented as 16 land cover classes.

Land Cover Mapping: Landsat forms the basis of the National Land Cover Database (NLCD), completed in 2001 as the first seamless land cover map of the entire conterminous United States. It serves as the definitive land cover map, updated and applied to many land cover and land change uses by agencies and organizations across the U.S.

Global Forest Inventory: Landsat formed the basis of a global forest inventory that yielded Global Forest Watch, a forest monitoring and alert system.

Global Surface Water Inventory: Landsat’s archive formed the basis of a global surface water inventory that yielded the Global Surface Water Explorer, which displays decades of changes in surface water.

50-Year Archive: The Landsat Program has made it a priority to archive Landsat scenes from the beginning and make them available to the public, achieved through the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center. This adds up to 10 million scenes and counting. 

Collections: Perhaps the 50-year archive is not so much an innovation as a springboard to innovation. In 2016, for example, the USGS aligned, corrected and harmonized the geometry and radiometry of every clear Landsat pixel from 1972 through the present, packaging the archive into a library called Collection 1, which grew by hundreds of scenes each day. The USGS upgraded and improved the archive yet again with Collection 2, further synchronizing and harmonizing the archive.

Change Over Time: In practice, the archive's harmonization allowed researchers to "stack" Landsat tiles through time to study change at the pixel level with greater confidence. The gold standard of calibration and Landsat's collections strategy, along with advances in computing power, helped scientists tackle previously unmanageable tasks. The LCMAP initiative, for example, tracks land cover and change on the pixel-by-pixel level from 1985 through the present. The RCMAP project, an outgrowth of NLCD's efforts to map rangeland ecosystems, maps percent coverage of rangeland components such as bare ground, sagebrush, and litter for each pixel of land in the western United States.

Water Use: Landsat's thermal band helps determine water use at the scale of an agricultural field by measuring evapotranspiration (ET), or the water evaporating from the land surface and transpiring from plants. The archive provides a look at historical trends in irrigation use for comparison with current use.