The Launch Of Landsat 9 Was Overshadowed By The Space Tourism Frenzy - What You Need To Know

By Marshall Shepherd, Contributor

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.

VANDENBERG SPACE FORCE BASE, CA - SEPTEMBER 27: In this handout photo provided by NASA, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the Landsat 9 satellite onboard is seen after the mobile launcher platform (MLP) was rolled back on September 27, 2021 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The Landsat 9 satellite is a joint NASA/U.S. Geological Survey mission that will continue monitoring Earth's land and coastal regions. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images) NASA via Getty Images

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.

Weddel Sea, Antarctica, true colour satellite image. Pack ice melting in spring time in the Weddel Sea, East of the Antarctica peninsula. Image taken on 21 February 2000 using LANDSAT data., Weddell Sea, Antarctica, True Colour Satellite Image (Photo by Planet Observer/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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.

Landsat imagery (visible and thermal) of Atlanta and its urban heat island. NASA Earth Observatory

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.

FOGO, CAPE VERDE - NOVEMBER 24 (SOUTH AFRICA OUT): A false-colour satellite view of Pico do Fogo volcano on November 24, 2014 in Fogo, Cape Verde. Pico do Fogo volcano erupted on 23 November 2014. This image is a combination of Shortwave infrared (SWIR) and near infrared (NIR). Bright red/orange indicate extreme heat and green represents healthy vegetation. (Photo by USGS/NASA Landsat/Orbital Horizon/Gallo Images/Getty Images) Getty Images

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