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Landsat Satellite Missions

In a September 21, 1966 press release, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall announced that the DOI was launching "Project EROS (Earth Resources Observation Satellites)." Udall's vision was to observe the Earth for the benefit of all

The Landsat Missions are comprised of Earth-observing operational satellites that carry remote sensors to collect data and image our planet as a part of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Land Imaging (NLI) Program.  Products generated from the imagery acquired by the sensors carried on  the Landsat satellites are hosted at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Landsat Missions Timeline
Since 1972, Landsat satellites have continuously acquired space-based images of the Earth’s land surface, providing uninterrupted data to help land managers and policymakers make informed decisions about our natural resources and the environment. 

Beginning in the 1960s, the remote sensing and science community worked to realize these missions for the benefit of humankind. Geography, geology, hydrology, and other natural resource management fields have all benefited from the holistic view of the Earth.

In a September 1966 press release, then Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, announced that the Department of the Interior (DOI) was launching "Project EROS (Earth Resources Observation Satellites)" to collect invaluable information about Earth through remote sensing satellite observation. Udall's vision was to observe the Earth for the benefit of all. Secretary Udall boldly revealed that National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the DOI would collaborate on Earth-observing space technology to monitor the planet’s natural resources. He stated "the program will provide us with the opportunity to collect valuable resource data and use it to improve the quality of our environment."

The DOI, NASA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) then embarked on an ambitious effort to develop and launch the first civilian Earth observation satellite. These revolutionary satellites would be set in a heliosynchronous, near-polar orbit, completing several revolutions around the Earth every day to capture the land surface of the planet. The heliosynchronous, near-polar orbit means the satellite passes near the North and South pole consistently as it revolves around the Earth. This type of orbit allows a Landsat spacecraft to pass over the equator at a different longitude on each revolution, resulting in the spacecraft completing full coverage of the Earth after 251 orbits, about every 18 days.

The interagency effort achieved their goal on July 23, 1972, with the launch of the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS-1), later renamed Landsat 1. Project EROS led to numerous international collaborations focusing on science and technology including a fundamental one on how to operate Landsat. Each commissioned satellite carried the storied heritage of the program. The launches of Landsat 2, Landsat 3, and Landsat 4 followed in 1975, 1978, and 1982, respectively. 

When Landsat 5 launched in 1984, no one could have predicted that the satellite would deliver high quality, global data of Earth’s land surfaces for 28 years and 10 months. This officially set a new Guinness World Record for "longest-operating Earth observation satellite." Landsat 6 failed to achieve orbit in 1993. As a result of the lost mission, the satellite is not included in successful Landsat counts. 

Recently-launched Landsat satellites carried sensors that would increase the volume of Earth observation data:  Landsat 7 in April 1999, Landsat 8 in February 2013, and Landsat 9 in September 2021. All Landsat satellites have launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base (as of May 2021, known as Vandenberg Space Force Base).  

The Landsat Next mission is planned to launch in late 2030/early 2031. Landsat Next will be a constellation of three observatories sent into orbit on the same launch vehicle, will provide improved temporal revisit on a new World Reference System, return data in a total of 26 spectral bands and will collect on average about 20 times more data than Landsat 9.   

Spectral Bandpasses for all Landsat Sensors
The Spectral Bandpasses for all Landsat Sensors. 

The enduring legacy of Project EROS continues with the Landsat program to this day. The information gathered by multiple Earth observation satellites, such as Landsat, now serves as a common, reliable record for environmental change around the world. Indeed, in the last half century, the record of Earth observation from space has become the indispensable foundation of almost all deliberations about the state of the planet. Secretary Udall’s vision has fundamentally remade how we see and understand our planet.