The Launch Of Landsat 9 Was Overshadowed By The Space Tourism Frenzy - What You Need To Know
As a former NASA Earth scientist, I keep a close eye on space-related activities of all types. In recent months, there has been quite the media buzz about space tourists being lofted into space (or suborbital space). Unfortunately, other important launches do not garner the same level of attention. In late September, NASA in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) “quietly” launched Landsat 9. Here’s why that matters to those of us with our feet firmly on the ground.
Most people are probably familiar with NASA activities involving space shuttles, astronauts, and Mars rovers. However, the space agency has a long history of Earth science. I spent roughly twelve years of my career as a research meteorologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center before joining the faculty at the University of Georgia. During that time, I worked among some of the best scientists in the world. We leveraged innovative satellite missions, developed new models, and conducted field campaigns to understand Earth’s climate, land use change, atmospheric composition, water cycle, carbon cycle, interior, ocean processes, and weather. Landsat has always been a part of that portfolio. The launch of Landsat 9 (on an Atlas V rocket) from Vandenberg Space Force Base marked the 2000th launch at that facility.
The Landsat series of missions, the first of which was launched in 1972, is a long-running partnership between NASA and the USGS. Karen St. Germain is the director of the Earth Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. In a NASA press release, she said, “For nearly 50 years, Landsat satellites observed our home planet, providing an unparalleled record of how its surface has changed over timescales from days to decades.” Scientists, environmentalists, planners, farmers, and natural resource managers have used the data throughout the years.
My research team and collaborators at the University of Georgia have used Landsat data to assess changes in urban land cover and the evolution of urban heat islands in Atlanta. Our ultimate goal is to understand whether some communities in cities are disproportionately exposed to heat risks due to discriminatory redlining practices in past decades. Like a medical doctor, Earth scientists have to monitor “vital signs” over time to understand. The Landsat missions enable trend detection on the surface of the Earth and within its climate system.
Thomas Zurbuchen is the associate administrator for science at NASA. He points out in the NASA press release, “Working in tandem with the other Landsat satellites, as well as our European Space Agency partners who operate the Sentintel-2 satellites, we are getting a more comprehensive look at Earth than ever before.” Landsat 9 joins Landsat 8 in orbit and will increase our capacity to track changes. The instruments aboard Landsat 9 are the Operational Land Imager 2 (OLI-2) and the Thermal Infrared Sensor 2 (TIRS-2). These instruments exploit the visible (like your eye) and thermal (like the IR thermometers increasingly used in the COVID era) parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to capture imagery at roughly the pixel size of a baseball infield (98 feet/30 meters across).
Landsat images and data are freely available to the public. The USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota is the clearinghouse for all five decades worth of Landsat satellite data. According to NASA, over 100 million downloads have happened since 2008.