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Liftoff of Landsat 9: The Next Earth Watcher

September 22, 2021

Is watching the launch of a Landsat satellite on your bucket-list of things to do? If so, NASA has invited the public to be a virtual guest at the Landsat 9 satellite launch, coming up in September 2021.  

The Landsat 9 mission – a joint effort between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey – is tasked with continuing the nearly 50-year record of Earth observations from orbit, the longest continuous space-based record of Earth’s land surface in existence.


"Expressions in the Desert” image from Landsat 8
“Expressions in the Desert” image from Landsat 8 – image from Earth Resources Observations and Science (EROS) Center “Earth as Art” Gallery: Earth As Art | Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center ( 

Landsat 9 will lift off on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket from Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, on 27 September 2021. To watch the launch virtually, you can register here. Registration permits you to receive notifications about the event and any launch schedule changes. 

Landsat 9 will observe Earth in the same sun-synchronous orbit as Landsat 8, at 705 km altitude. It will acquire 700 images every day at a 30-meter per pixel resolution. It has 2 instruments onboard.  One, the Operational Land Imager, measures reflected light in visible, near infrared, and shortwave infrared wavelengths. The other, the Thermal Infrared Sensor, measures heat radiation emitted from the Earth’s surface in thermal infrared wavelengths.

Scientists are like physicians for the Earth, using tools like Landsat satellites to watch for natural and human induced changes that affect our quality of life. They look for evidence of climate change, drought, urban sprawl, wildfires, flooding, and volcanic activity – giving Earth regular check-ups to assess its health. Astrogeology volcanologist Greg Vaughan says “Currently, I use Landsat 8 thermal infrared data to help characterize thermal areas in Yellowstone's geothermal system, as well as any other volcanic areas around the world that may have thermal activity. I look forward to continuing this work using Landsat 9 thermal infrared data.”

This type of remote sensing system is similar to many of the satellites that orbit Mars and other bodies across the solar system and have provided valuable information about the surface of other planets. Astrogeology Research Geologist Lauren Edgar talks about how she uses Landsat to help with Terrestrial Analogs work: "I often use visible images from Landsat 8 as a base map for terrestrial analog fieldwork and geologic mapping. Recently I've been using these data to explore sedimentary and volcanic environments in northern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and the Mojave Desert." Astrogeology scientists will be able to use Landsat 9 in future work, just as they've been using prior Landsat missions to investigate processes on Earth.


Who are the players?

Landsat 9 and previous Landsat missions are a partnership between NASA and the USGS. NASA's expertise in Earth observing missions includes the construction, launch, and testing of satellites.  The USGS is in charge of Landsat mission operations, and develops and builds the ground-based system to acquire, process, and archive data. The Landsat mission archive currently contains more than 8 million images, stored at the USGS EROS Data Center. Data products from Landsat missions can be obtained from USGS Earth Explorer, free of charge. More information about accessing Landsat data can be found here.

Landsat 9 Mission Logo (Image from NASA)
Landsat 9 Mission Logo (Image from NASA).

Brief History

The partnership between NASA and the USGS has enabled the acquisition of Earth images beginning with Landsat 1 in 1972. Landsat 2-5 followed, with increasingly advanced remote sensing technologies. In 1993, Landsat 6 failed at launch after not reaching the velocity necessary to obtain orbit. Landsat 7 (launched in 1999) and Landsat 8 (launched in 2013) are currently operational, soon to be joined by Landsat 9.  Landsat 8 and 9 have more spectral bands with better spatial resolution than their predecessors and are the most technologically advanced Landsat systems to date, which enables the acquisition of more images with more spatial and spectral details than ever before.

The Landsat program maintains an Outreach website for students, teachers, and informal educators to interact with data, resources, and scientists. Here you can find animations, news, activities, and lesson plans. Check out the Fun with Landsat and Camp Landsat web pages for build-your-own scale models of Landsat 9, posters, and lots of fun and educational activities for students.