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November 8, 2021

Landsat 9, a joint mission from the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and NASA that launched Sept. 27, has collected its first images of Earth.  

The images, referred to as “first light” by operators, were all acquired Oct. 31 and provide a preview of how the mission will continue and improve on the Landsat program’s unprecedented almost 50-year history of Earth satellite imagery.

Landsat helps people prepare for and respond to natural disasters such as landslides and wildfires, manage vital natural resources and understand the impacts of climate change. First light images are curated by NASA as part of the 100-day testing period after launch, before control of the satellite is handed over to the USGS in January 2022.  

“The incredible first pictures from the Landsat 9 satellite are a glimpse into the data that will help us make science-based decisions on key issues including water use, wildfire impacts, coral reef degradation, glacier and ice-shelf retreat and tropical deforestation,” said  David Applegate, Associate Director for Natural Hazards Exercising the Delegated Authority of the Director, U.S. Geological Survey. “This historic moment is the culmination of our long partnership with NASA on Landsat 9’s development, launch and initial operations, which will better support environmental sustainability, climate change resiliency and economic growth – all while expanding an unparalleled record of Earth's changing landscapes.”  

Shown in the images are coastal ecosystems in Australia; the intersection of cities and coastlines in the Florida Panhandle; glaciers in High Mountain Asia; and farm fields surrounding Lake Erie.

Color Landsat 9 image of Western Australia
Mangroves are prominent along the northwest coast of Australia. The first image collected by Landsat 9, on Oct. 31, 2021, shows mangroves clustered in protected inlets and bays on the edge of the Indian Ocean. Fluffy cumulus clouds and high-altitude cirrus clouds hover nearby. The aqua colors of the shallow near-shore waters give way to the deep, dark blues of the ocean.

“First light is a big milestone for Landsat users – it’s the first chance to really see the kind of quality that Landsat 9 provides. And these look fantastic,” said Jeff Masek, NASA’s Landsat 9 project scientist. “When we have Landsat 9 operating in coordination with Landsat 8, it’s going to provide a wealth of data, allowing us to monitor changes to our home planet every eight days.”  

The  Landsat program,  begun in 1972, is the longest continuous satellite record of Earth’s surface in existence. Its images are provided free by the USGS, making it a vital resource for all land managers, planners, policymakers, scientists and natural disaster responders.  

color Landsat 9 image of the Navajo Nation
In the Western U.S., in places like the Navajo Nation as seen in this Landsat 9 image, Landsat and other satellite data help people monitor drought conditions and manage irrigation water. With only 85 rain gauges to cover more than 27,000 square miles, satellite data and climate models are filling the gaps to help the Navajo Nation monitor drought severity.

Landsat 9 is similar in design to its predecessor Landsat 8 but features several improvements. It carries two instruments that capture imagery: the Operational Land Imager 2, or OLI-2, which detects nine different wavelengths of visible, near-infrared and shortwave-infrared light; and the Thermal Infrared Sensor 2, or TIRS-2, which detects two wavelengths of thermal radiation to measure Earth’s surface temperatures and its changes.   

These instruments will provide Landsat 9 users essential information about crop health, irrigation use, water quality, wildfire severity, deforestation, glacial retreat, urban expansion and more.   

Color Landsat 9 image of Lake Erie
Sediments swirl in Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair in this Landsat 9 image of both Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario, from Oct. 31, 2021. The Great Lakes serve as sources of freshwater, recreational activity, transport, and habitat for the upper-midwestern US, and water quality remains a high priority. In warmer months, Landsat 9 observes swirls of green algae which can become harmful algal blooms. Landsat 9 will be able to help scientists and resource managers identify those blooms early, identifying areas to test further.

The new satellite transmits data with higher radiometric resolution back down to Earth, allowing it to detect more subtle differences, especially over darker areas such as water or dense forests. For example, Landsat 9 can differentiate more than 16,000 shades of a given wavelength; Landsat 7, the satellite being replaced, detects only 256 shades.  

As part of the 100-day check-out period, NASA’s Landsat 9 team will test the satellite’s different systems and subsystems and calibrate the instruments in preparation for the handoff to the USGS. The USGS will operate Landsat 9 along with Landsat 8, and together the two satellites will collect approximately 1,500 images of Earth’s surface every day, an area roughly equivalent to the combined landmasses of North and South America. The Landsat 7 satellite will be decommissioned.  

Color Landsat 9 image of Florida panhandle
The white sands of Pensacola Beach stand out in this Landsat 9 image of the Florida Panhandle of the United States, with Panama City visible under some popcorn-like clouds. Landsat and other remote sensing satellites help to track changes to US coastlines, including urban development and potential impacts of rising sea levels. From Oct. 31, 2021, the first day of data collection for Landsat 9.

“Users worldwide are eager to incorporate Landsat 9 data into their Earth science studies and automated change-detection systems.  Right after launch, we were already receiving inquiries about the data,” said Joe Blahovec, New Missions Branch Chief for the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center. “These images signal to our users that Landsat’s unparalleled long-term record of precision Earth observations will continue to provide them the benefits they’ve come to expect.”  

Landsat 9 data will be available free to the public from USGS’s website as soon as the satellite begins normal operations.   

For more information on Landsat 9 and the Landsat program, visit:  


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