Landsat Science Team Hears Plans for Landsat 9 Launch
Lompoc, CA, has officially designated Sept. 12-18, 2021 as “Landsat Week.” After the September 16th launch, ground system operators and calibration and validation teams at the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) will take part in a comprehensive early orbit and commissioning phase to prepare the newest entrant in the Landsat series of satellites for the day-to-day work of imaging the Earth for the good of mankind.
The USGS is poised to take ownership of the observatory once the joint NASA and USGS Mission Transition Handover Review in January of 2022.
Those were just a few of the messages delivered during a virtual meeting of the Landsat Science Team (LST) on July 22, 2021, the first of three set to take place over the next two months. The September meeting—the group’s first face-to-face assembly since February 2020—will coincide with the launch.
A measure of excitement permeated the gathering, coming as it did less than two weeks after Landsat 9’s arrival at Vandenberg Space Force Base near Lompoc.
After a series of launch date delays tied to technical issues, sensor integration, and the COVID pandemic, the L9 mission has spent nine months hitting every mark needed to make a Sept. 16, 2021 trip to space a reality.
“We’re ready for launch,” said Dr. Jeff Masek, the NASA Landsat 9 Project Scientist and LST co-chair who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “The performance of the instruments and the observatory look to be excellent, so we’re looking forward to a new Landsat in orbit.”
Landsat 9 Ground System Prepared for Launch
A successful launch may feel like a “mission accomplished” moment in the public mind, but it represents the moment that heavy lifting begins for the USGS.
Which is not to say the USGS hasn’t been busy already, of course. USGS contractor Kari Wulf of the Aerospace Corporation, who serves as the L9 Mission Integration Lead and Ground System Manager, used her portion of the recent LST meeting to walk through the extensive pre-launch ground system preparations that have taken place.
That work included the setup of a “Hallway Ground System (HGS)” at Northrop Grumman in Gilbert, AZ to collect and process practice data during the build-out and testing of the satellite. More than 23 terabytes of data were transferred from Landsat 9 and processed at the Arizona facility, Wulf said. These data were used to test the robust data processing and archive system (DPAS) developed at EROS for processing Landsat 9 data into the science products that are archived and distributed to the science community.
The USGS team also tested the space to ground communications and the data transfer capabilities of the primary Landsat Ground Network (LGN) that will be used for L9 launch and commissioning, located at EROS; Fairbanks, AK; and Svalbard, Norway, as well as for the stations in Alice Springs, Australia, and Neustrelitz, Germany that will be used in daily operations.
“The ground system (team) has been diligently testing for the last couple of years, and I’m happy to report that all pre-launch tests are complete,” Wulf said.
The LST saw photos of the fully developed and integrated Landsat Multi-Satellite Operations Center (LMOC) in Maryland, which is ready for the Launch, Early Orbit, and Commissioning (LEOC) phase of the mission, which lasts roughly 100 days. The early orbit phase starts with 30 days of spacecraft activation and checkout, and an additional 10 to complete instrument power-up, thermal conditioning and detector checkouts. Instrument calibration begins in earnest at that point, with a flurry of activity in the run-up to the last phase of commissioning, during which the observatory settles into its operational altitude for final calibration and validation activities.
Landsat 9 data are expected to be made available in January 2022, after which Landsat 7 data will cease to be collected.
EROS, Partners Ready to Tackle Sensor Calibration
Around 40 days after launch, EROS and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center calibration and validation engineers will begin the data quality characterization tasks necessary to make sure the Operational Land Imager 2 (OLI-2) and Thermal Infrared Sensor 2 (TIRS-2) will be ready meet the high scientific standards expected of Landsat.
Characterizing the radiometry (measurements of electromagnetic radiation) and geometry of L9 data is no small undertaking. The L9 satellite will spend a few days in an “under-fly” below Landsat 8 in early November, allowing the cal/val team to compare acquisitions.
“We’re really going to be looking at any and all data that can be used during that under-fly time, really doing an in-depth comparison and cross-calibration between those two instruments,” said Cody Anderson of the USGS, who leads the EROS Cal/Val Center of Excellence (ECCOE).
Lunar data acquisitions, during which L9 will image the spectrally stable, cloud-free surface of the moon, will also aid the efforts, as will extended data acquisitions over ocean water and collections from deep space.
EROS teams won’t labor alone. Cal/val work prior to launch was the province of NASA Goddard and EROS teams, but the post-launch tasks will pull in partners, including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Rochester Institute of Technology, South Dakota State University, and the University of Arizona.
Those groups will use stationary radiometers, hand-held spectrometers, atmospheric sensors and more to compare data from Landsat 9 and Landsat 8 to ground-level readings used by the USGS and partner cal/val teams to ensure quality and continuity. The partners will also lean heavily on “pseudo-invariant calibration (PIC)” sites—current PIC sites and new sites to compare data from L8 and L9 and harmonize the instruments.
“All of these groups will be sending out field teams to assist in calibration,” Anderson said. “It’s really going to give us an opportunity to nail cross-calibration in a way that’s never been possible before.”
Lompoc, CA Rolls Out Welcome Mat for Landsat
A Landsat launch is a major event for the scientific community and for the city of Lompoc, CA. Every Landsat satellite has launched from Vandenberg.
NASA Outreach Coordinator Ginger Butcher offered up the “fun” portion of Thursday’s LST meeting, walking attendees through the full week of Landsat-related activities that will take place in Lompoc during the week of September 16.
There was plenty to cover. The formally designated “Landsat Week” kicks off with a ribbon cutting for a Landsat mural and continues with a Landsat-themed Geocaching Geotour event, Earth As Art exhibits all across the city, a Landsat floor puzzle and interactive Landsat games for kids at the Lompoc Library, a book signing for an updated edition of the Landsat-themed children’s book “Echo the Bat,” and a Landsat and Wine science talk at a local winery.
Landsat enthusiasts needn’t wait for launch week to get into the launch week spirit, however. NASA Outreach teams have week-by-week online activities planned from now through launch day. Visit this link to learn about Landsat Craft, which urges the public to create of Landsat-inspired arts and crafts, and watch #LandsatCraft on social media to see official and civilian submissions. Visit this link for Camp Landsat, a week-by-week educational journey that walks through the ways Landsat helps us to understand our changing planet.
Dr. Tom Loveland, the former EROS Chief Scientist and acting LST Co-Chair, enthusiastically offered up the team’s expertise and assistance for outreach at the close of the L9 briefing.
“We’re here to help in any way we can,” Loveland said. “I think most of us are kids at heart, and we’ll want to be involved in some of these things.”