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The Landsat program and the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center have long held and important place in the nation’s Earth observation (EO) policy.

Color screenshot of 2019 National Plan for Civilian Earth Observations
2019 National Plan for Civilian Earth Observations - White House Office of Science and Technology

A recently-released report from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) offers further proof of the value and importance of the venerable satellite program and its ground station to the future of remote sensing science.

The 2019 National Plan for Civil Earth Observations is meant to serve as a guide to federal agencies in the coordination of federally-supported EO programs and investments.

It singles out the value of the Landsat program in several sections, points to EROS as a key player in maintaining and distributing a well-calibrated, curated archive of EO data, and highlights the importance of the Joint Agency Commercial Imagery Evaluation (JACIE) team to the plan’s goal of incorporating of new quality products into the federal data stream. EROS is one of the original members of JACIE and continues to serve as the co-chair and organizer of the five-agency group and its annual workshop.

“The plan recognizes that JACIE is a model for how government and industry can operate more efficiently and effectively in the Earth observation arena,” said the USGS’ Greg Stensaas, who leads the JACIE team for USGS EROS.

The 2019 OSTP report was prepared by the U.S. Group on Earth Observations (USGEO), a subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Committee on Environment. The USGEO will be responsible for putting the plan into action.

USGS National Land Imaging Program Coordinator Tim Newman represents the USGS as co-chair of the subcommittee, a leadership group that also includes representation from OSTP, NASA, and NOAA.

The new report is the second broad-brush national EO plan released this decade. The first edition came in 2014, supported by the USGS Requirements, Capabilities and Analysis for Earth Observations (RCA-EO) project.

The 2014 plan was built around the conclusions of an Earth Observation Assessment (EOA) that saw around 300 federal subject matter experts grading 362 EO systems across 13 societal benefit areas. Three USGS systems were ranked in the top 15, with the Landsat program listed at number three.

A second EOA, undertaken in 2016 to guide the just-released 2019 plan, found similar results and once again put USGS activities and Landsat and near the top of the list.

“It showed that the Landsat system exceptional value was represented as impact in nearly every area of societal benefit covered by the plan, with the exception being space weather observation,” Stensaas said.

The 2019 plan is built around three goals:

- to Support and Balance the Portfolio of Earth Observations by maintaining existing systems, identifying the impact of retiring systems, and evaluating the addition of commercial datasets;

- to Engage the Earth Observations Enterprise by improving coordination of varying EO systems and data interoperability, encouraging research and development of new systems through federal investment and offering feedback on new systems as they emerge; and,

- to Improve the Impact of Earth Observations through communicating value, improving the EO portfolio to meet agency objectives, encouraging international collaboration, and developing a skilled workforce.

Landsat is important to each of those goals. The program, along with other legacy EO programs across federal agencies, provide a baseline for data continuity and new data calibration and evaluation.

“The Administration continues to support Landsat 9 via the joint NASA/USGS Sustainable Land Imaging program to continue the 47-year Landsat record of global, land-imaging measurements,” the report says. “Additionally, agencies are exploring how to best leverage the growth in commercial Earth observation capabilities while sustaining the data infrastructure needed by both the commercial and government sectors of the Earth Observations Enterprise.”

The plan also includes examples of Landsat’s specific value, citing its use in the federal Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) program. A NASA study from July, for example, compared cost of producing BAER’s Burned Area Reflectance Classification using Landsat or commercial satellites to the cost of producing the product using only aerial imagery and found that the use of Landsat saved $35 million over five years.

That single example from the plan points to cost savings through efficiency, continuing to bolster the case for the program’s overall societal value. A recent USGS report tagged $3.45 billion in worldwide economic benefits to the Landsat program in 2017 - $2.06 billion of which was in the U.S.

EROS as an archive, meanwhile, factors heavily into the future of federal EO programs for its role in maintaining wide public access to the current and future datasets that will form the basis of collaborative endeavors.

“Data lifecycle management and scientific data stewardship services ensure that the results of observations and scientific research are available and usable by all, today and into the future,” the 2019 national plan says. “Data re-analysis is key for improving our understanding of Earth system processes over time and the performance of operational missions.”

The full report on the 2019 is available online here.



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