Eyes on Earth Episode 60 – Landsat 9 Launch Part 1

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Detailed Description

Landsat 9 launched into orbit from Vandenberg Space Force Base on Monday, September 27, 2021, to carry on the legacy of a nearly 50-year record of continuous Earth observation that began in 1972. The days leading up to the event saw guests from around the world descend upon Santa Barbara County in California to watch the historic event take place. Over the next few weeks, we’ll bring you some of the interviews we collected with scientists, government officials and Mission partners. This episode of Eyes on Earth focuses on the day before the launch, when we spoke about the importance of the Landsat program with guests at the launchpad and a Landsat for Climate event.

Details

Episode Number: 60

Date Taken:

Length: 00:16:19

Location Taken: Lompoc, CA, US

Credits

 

Tanya Trujillo, Assistant DOI Secretary for Water and Science;
Tony Willardson, Director, Western States Water Council;
Joaquin Esquivel, Chair, California Water Resources Control Board;
Kevin Gallagher, Associate Director, USGS Core Science Systems;
John Hult (Contractor for EROS Data Center), Host/Producer

Transcript

JOHN HULT:
Hello, everyone, and welcome to a special episode of Eyes on Earth. We're a podcast that focuses on our ever-changing planet, and on the people at EROS and across the globe who use remote sensing to monitor and study the health of Earth.
I'm your host for this episode, John Hult.
Landsat 9 launched into orbit from Vandenberg Space Force Base on Monday, September 27, 2021, to carry on the legacy of a nearly 50-year record of continuous Earth observation that began in 1972. The days leading up to the event saw guests from around the world descend upon Santa Barbara county California to watch the historic event take place. 
We were there for the launch and the days leading up to it, and over the next few weeks we'll be bringing you some of the interviews we collected with scientists, government officials and Mission partners. 
For today, we're focused on the day before the launch. We met Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Water and Science Tanja Trujillo on Sunday morning at Space Launch Complex-3, where Landsat 9 sat inside the payload fairing of an Atlas V rocket. 
Tanya is an attorney and New Mexico native who's worked closely on water rights in the West. Some of that collaboration involved the Western States Water Council, an organization that has championed the Landsat program's value in monitoring water use. The Council also worked with Landsat Mission partners to advocate for the Thermal Infrared Sensor-which we call "TIRS"-on board Landsat 8, and now Landsat 9. Tanya spoke alongside Tony Willardson, who is the Council's executive director. Now you're going to hear a lot of background noise here, because we were speaking about 200 feet from the rocket.
TANYA TRUJILLO:
The Landsat program is very helpful to all of the Western states in terms of how they analyze the water use data, and it provides another tool that they can utilize through evapotranspiration analysis, analysis of what the supply and demand factors might be on a year-to-year basis, but Tony's the expert in this matter.
TONY WILLARDSON:
Well, thanks, Tanya. We appreciate all your support. The Western States Water Council actually represents 18 states, and our members are appointed by the governors. We've been involved with Landsat because of the importance of being able to measure consumptive water use over the large regional scales down to the field scale. Water rights in the west are based on that consumptive use, and Landsat provides a tool to be able, then, to verify water use. There are a number of different areas. I've said in the past, the Colorado River Basin, which is in a huge drought now. Twenty-two, going on 22 years. Every drop of water is becoming more important, and Landsat helps us measure that. So   whether you're in North Dakota or Southern California, it's important to be able to know what our water use is, and how much water we will have available in the future. I should mention, too, OpenET.
TRUJILLO:
Yes.
WILLARDSON:
NASA's efforts to map evapotranspiration using Landsat and other information, and we're working with them as to how we can actually match that with our own water data exchange, which includes water rights and water use, and be able to evaluate in the future what water rights are being used and how much of that water's being put to use. 
TRUJILLO:
This project is a great example of a partnership between the federal government and the Western states, but also between the Department of Interior and our partners at NASA. It's great to mix the portfolios of the exploration and science elements from both of our agencies. We of course have the land management responsibilities that we take very seriously and are working on, on a day-by-day basis. This data that feeds in from the Landsat missions helps provide a base for our scientific work. I was speaking earlier with someone about the importance with respect to our wildfire analysis and the post-wildfire analysis. It's something that's becoming more and more critical in the context of climate change.
WILLARDSON:
On that side, too, for the states, the water quality impacts.
TRUJILLO:
Yes
WILLARDSON:
They're seeing the precipitation after the burns. That's been huge.
TRUJILLO:
Water quality's a huge component.
WILLARDSON:
And including now, states using the Landsat data to monitor harmful algal blooms.
TRUJILLO:
Yes.
WILLARDSON:
And being able to address those issues. 
HULT:
Can you talk just briefly about putting TIRS on Landsat 8, and again on Landsat 9, why that was important?
WILLARDSON:
That's what makes it key for us. That, as well as the archive of the Landsat data that goes back to 1982. That allows states to not only evaluate current uses, but what those uses have been in the past. And I would mention, the credit we get for helping insure TIRS was on 8 was because of bipartisan support in the Senate. We had support from 12 Western Senators, six Republicans and six Democrats, all recognized the importance of this tool.
TRUJILLO:
And that support has continued for this mission, Landsat 9, and we'll have even better capabilities in terms of the thermal analysis, and the improvements that are made, but also that continuity that you mentioned. We'll be able to continue the record into the future.
HULT:
Why is it important to have civilian satellites with this record?
WILLARDSON:
I have served as a member of the Landsat Advisory Group. We looked at the possibility of privatizing the data, and I think because that data's continued to be free we've seen an explosion in the application of the information that we wouldn't have seen. And I don't think there's any private satellite that has the thermal imagery.
TRUJILLO:
It's one of kind in terms of its longevity, but also that key element of it being publicly available information. And anyone with an internet connection can find the resources, can download them and utilize them. It's important to maintain that availability and that continuity as we go forward. Tony, how cool is it that we're here at the launchpad of the Landsat 9 satellite?
WILLARDSON:
This is great. I got to watch Landsat 8, but from quite a distance. And I still remember the picture of that cone, and some of the promotional material from Landsat 8. And so actually being here this close and seeing it ready to launch tomorrow is truly spectacular. 
HULT:
One of the water rights officials who hope to tackle water scarcity in California is named Joaquin Esquivel. Joaquin is the chair of the California Water Resources Control Board, which administers water rights and oversees water quality. We met him at a winery the evening before the launch. He was on hand for an event called "Landsat for Climate," during which guests were able to meet several scientists who use satellite data to study the impact of climate change on the landscape. You'll hear a reference to OpenET here, which stands for Open Evapotranspiration. That project is a partnership between NASA, Google, the Environmental Defense Fund and Desert Research Institute, EROS and others that aims to use several satellite-based water use estimates to create an open-source tool for tracking consumptive water use across the Western U.S. You're also going to hear the term "HABs," which stands for harmful algal blooms. Those damage water quality and can threaten the health of humans and wildlife. My first question was "how do you know where HABs are happening?"
JOAQUIN ESQUIVEL:
Well, we use your satellites.
HULT:
Okay.
ESQUIVEL:
They're an important part of really characterizing our water bodies these days, because we don't have enough people everywhere. Or people will tell us, like "look, we see instances of HABs happening," so there's a lot of community aspects with the work that we're doing on the HABs side, as well. 
HULT:
And then on the water rights side?
ESQUIVEL:
I'll be candid. The administration of water rights in the state of California is not a sophisticated enterprise right now. It is still, you know, it is challenged by a lack of data, a lack of quality data, and for us it's even getting our diverters to report how much that they've diverted in the last year.
HULT:
Really?
ESQUIVEL:
Yeah, it's very challenging. We only over the last few years, a few years ago, for the first time now have a yearly requirement for all of our water rights holders. Some of them were only reporting every four or five years. It's a light touch system, as I like to say, in the state. But with Landsat, and the ability to better calculate and know ET, it becomes a proxy for water use, right? Especially consumptive diversions are very hard to measure directly because they may be using siphons, there can be variable flows, so it's hard for the grower to know, sometimes, how much they use. But with ET, you know exactly, at least, what came off, and there's the equation. So that's why the OpenET project with NASA, with EDF, with Google, is important for us. It should create trust amongst the water users, it should create trust amongst us all to be able to see the same data, and be able to say "yes, that's what I used." I think of like, taxes, right? You can either make it very hard for people to pay taxes, or you can make it easy for them, to do things like report because we have data sources that aggregate at this remote sensing level.
HULT:
Of course.
ESQUIVEL:
So that you don't have to measure. But, anyway ... it's a sensitive but, you know, a future discussion.
HULT:
I suppose the idea is that you can say "this is very much like your rain gauge." It maybe isn't quite as intuitive or tactile as a rain gauge, but this is a measurement that ... it doesn't care who you are or who I am, it's just ...
ESQUIVEL:
The data is what it is. Exactly. And that's why OpenET, and the ensemble of, you know, models, is so helpful. Because it's not any one model, it's the aggregate of it. So that's why the OpenET project is so exciting. 
HULT:
Sure.
ESQUIVEL:
So, it's the space, I think, yeah, generally, the water quality, water rights administration, you know, the importance for us, for me, you know ... our regulatory agency is 50 years, and how it's going to function for the next 50 years, it's going to be really important for us to start to leverage some of these 21st Century investments that help us do more with less. You know, let us understand what's happening at the landscape scale, better manage water quality, multiple outcomes through, you know, drought or flood, whatever it may be.
HULT:
After the Landsat for Climate meet and greet, the guests took some time to eat. We used the break to catch up with USGS Core Science Systems Mission Area Director Kevin Gallagher. We spoke just before the second Landsat-related event of the evening, where we heard about how Landsat data helps California wineries manage water use. The sizzling you'll hear in the background is the sound of the flat grill. Here's what Kevin had on his mind the night before the launch.
KEVIN GALLAGHER:
Landsat came along in 1972, at a time when worldwide we started documenting significant changes in the temperature, associated with climate change. And so the fact that we have a data record of monitoring on the Earth that coincides with this change, I don't think we've even begun to understand the significance of that. And so mining that data archive is one of the huge opportunities and challenges that we face. So a lot of appreciation, we're standing on the shoulders of people that built an amazing program, and the folks that dedicated a good portion of their lives to get Landsat 9 in the air. We're so pleased that we have a spacecraft on top of a rocket today to be very excited about and, fingers crossed, we'll be in space come Monday evening. But there's another aspect that I'm focused on right now, and that's Landsat Next. This is the opportunity to continue the legacy far into the future. The Landsat data record is so unique. We're capturing most of the electromagnetic spectrum. There really is no other satellite that's quite like Landsat, collecting the frequencies of the spectrum that we collect. And as we look at Landsat Next, I think the two primary goals is to broaden that collection to collect even more of the spectrum, to address a wider array of user needs, and to continue this legacy for another decade or even more into the future. 
HULT:
There are a lot of satellites out there. A lot of commercial satellites. 
GALLAGHER:
Yes.
HULT:
The open data policy means that everybody can calibrate to Landsat. Why is it so important to have this continuous record on the civilian side?
GALLAGHER:
Yeah, no, this is a great question that comes up a lot. So ... well, first of all I want to talk about the free data policy, because that was a game-changer. It was an incredibly brilliant move, in my opinion, on the part of Department of Interior to release this to the world, and it really changed the world. I do a lot of work with international communities when it comes to geospatial data. And all of Europe, for example, they had a completely different model for charging for data that the government collected. And that's all changed. Now Europe's on board with open data, and it's the great equalizer. It basically brings everybody to the table to not only gain the value from the data, but also to add to the intellectual market, if you will, of ideas about an interpretation of the data. We're working in a resolution of 30 meters, and so the way to think about that is size of a baseball, an American baseball diamond. That's a size that really is great for regional studies, understanding Earth processes, at a scale that is significant for everyone around the globe. The commercial industry is essential to what we do, there's a great partnership. They bring the technology development, the instrument development to the table for Landsat. But in terms of them independently operating, launching their own satellites, they've been going after a quite different market, it's high-resolution, the kind of thing   that we think of when we go and look at an image over our house, for example. At the moment in time, there isn't a commercial provider that's providing the same level of data.
HULT:
Because essentially, we're looking at a wider swath of the spectrum than they're going for? 
GALLAGHER:
That's correct.
HULT:
And we have that regional scale coverage.
GALLAGHER:
That's correct. 
HULT:
So that's one piece.
GALLAGHER:
That's correct. There's another piece, I think, that involves, you know, this consistency with this legacy. For all this data to come together and be valuable, we want comparability. You want comparability in different parts of the globe and also over a temporal scale of great periods of time. Ultimately, (if the) the commercial sector builds it, they want to license the data. And ultimately be paid for it. And many times, you'll pay for it over and over and over and over again. 
HULT:
What else do we need to know about Landsat 9 and Landsat Next?
GALLAGHER: 
What else do we need to know. I think that a fair number of people understand that there's a variety of applications that come out of this. Vineyards use it to understand agriculture. The wildfire season, it's used there. I think the thing that I would like to get across, and my colleagues at NASA would agree, if you're familiar with the United Nations and their societal relevance approach, they've identified a couple of dozen worldwide societal needs. The Landsat program delivers across that entire spectrum. From a national asset, it's second only to GPS in terms of its value, and from a worldwide perspective, it's similar. Some of the applications like famine early warning systems ... it's like an immeasurable value to the human race.
HULT:
We've been listening in on some of the conversations we had on our trip to California for the launch of Landsat 9. Thank you for joining us, and be sure to come back for more from launch in the coming weeks.
You can find us on our website at usgs.gov/eros, that usgs.gov/e-r-o-s, or by finding us on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.
This podcast is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of Interior.