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Landsat: Celebrating 50 Years

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The Landsat program conceived of in the 1960s, has been running longer than any remote sensing program. The idea was simple: position a satellite in a nearly polar orbit fixed to the solar angle so that each daytime pass would cross the equator at roughly the same local time.

Data representing bands of the spectrum are captured and processed into grayscale recordings, which can be combined to create natural looking views like this or false color views like this. Nine Landsat satellites have been launched in partnership with NASA's since 1972.

Expectations were high when Landsat 1 carried two sensors into orbit. This view of Dallas, Texas, was the first cloudless image received. Landsat 1 data led to immediate and fundamental changes to practices of the cartographic and geographic communities. Country borders were redrawn and entire islands were discovered.

Imagery was received and processed at the new USGS EROS Center in South Dakota, which would become the hub of the Landsat archive for the next 50 years. The first three Landsats added a wealth of insight to many areas of science, from forestry and hydrology to cartography, environmental pollution and more.

Landsat 3 data was used in over 400 programs in 31 countries. Groups in Bolivia leaned on Landsat to discover new lithium deposits. Officials in Kenya monitored the relationship between cheetahs and cattle, and engineers in Pakistan studied silt patterns in the data to plan for a new seaport.

The second generation of Landsat was one of great technical innovation. The new thematic mapper sensor offered higher spatial resolution and additional bands, including a thermal band. Landsat 5 launched less than two years after Landsat 4. Landsat 5 was a workhorse for the program, contributing over 2.5 million scenes to the archive.

The Guinness Book of World Records took notice in 2013, marking it the world's longest operating Earth observation satellite. Landsat 7 added to the observation record with years of science value monitoring water quality, glacier recession, fire progression, flooding, population growth and more.

Landsat 8 launched in February 2013. A rapid expansion of science applications included fire observation, permafrost research, desert management, iceberg tracking, volcanic activity, lithium mining and much more. Landsat 9 launched in 2021. The Landsat satellites perform technical wonders in orbit.

But without a global partnership on the ground, the data they collect would never make it to users. From the beginning, data collection and distribution was directed by the EROS Center in South Dakota. For 50 years, the USGS team at EROS has served the Landsat program by innovating through generations of technology and science.

The archive at EROS is currently home to over 10 million Landsat scenes and growing rapidly. To receive data from the satellite's EROS partners with global ground stations. The current Landsat 8 and 9 ground network consists of five receiving stations in four countries.

These stations download science and telemetry data, which eventually make their way to EROS. Ground stations can also upload commands. Further enriching Landsat's global partnership is the International Cooperative Network. An international cooperator is an international governmental organization with which the USGS enters into a formal agreement for the direct reception of Landsat data.

International cooperators serve their user community by providing direct access to Landsat data in real time and are integral to the Landsat program. Today, the network includes 13 active stations from ten organizations around the world and has contributed over 6.5 million Landsat scenes to the Landsat archive through the Landsat Global Archive Consolidation Initiative.

The USGS meets with the international cooperators twice a year to discuss operational management and technical matters. It's a valuable learning opportunity for every partner involved with Landsat. Together engineers, scientists, community managers and users across the globe have been central to the 50 year success of Landsat.




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Music used with permission by Soundstripe (– DMDFYD9Q82ELIJLR –)