How Landsat chronicled 50 years on a shifting and fiery planet

Around 2030, the The Landsat program will launch its next satellite, called Landsat Next. It will bravely break with the numerical naming convention. It will also be an upgrade.

“Even when Landsat 9 was still under construction, we were talking to scientists in the community,” says Bruce Cook, a Goddard scientist for the next iteration of the program, asking them what they wanted Landsat 9 wouldn’t give them. The answers were simple. They wanted images of each point more often, higher-resolution data, and finer bands: the instruments divide light into more detailed categories based on their wavelength, much like the difference between a set of eight crayons and one with 16. These can reveal things like algal blooms, whose colors tell the story of their explosive growth. The team hopes Landsat Next will visit spots every nine days instead of every 16, have 26 bands instead of 11, and have a resolution of around 30ft, showing gaps around the length of six. sidewalk squares on one side.

But with the hundreds of private Earth observation satellites in orbit providing higher resolution data more frequently, why does the government need to use Landsat? Well, for one thing, Landsat data is free.

Over the past half-century, Landsat has had a few relatives, including different government agencies and, at one point, a private company. Today it is jointly overseen by NASA and the USGS, which operate both Landsat 8 and Landsat 9. (Other orbiters have now been retired.) The price of satellite data has fallen to $0 in 2008.

It’s a bargain compared to 1979 when, under government ownership, the stages cost a few hundred dollars. This price had risen to $4,400 per scene in the mid-1990s when Landsat had a private operator. When the feds took it over and launched Landsat 7 in 1999, prices plummeted, but they didn’t go away for nearly a decade, in part because the internet made delivery and processing cheaper. and less physical. No more cassettes in the mail!

Today, Landsat data resides in the USGS archives and is free for the public to download. Scientists around the world, who previously could only afford to buy an image or three, can now click Download at their leisure. Nonprofits with tight checkbooks can do the same, as can researchers in countries without their own satellites. Other branches of the federal government — Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense — also use the data. You too, and all your curious compatriots, use a variety of databases and tools depending on your needs and technical know-how.

The point is, anyone, no matter the size of their wallet or the flag above their civic buildings, can see the same views of Earth. “It’s hard to overstate how important this transparency is,” says Morton. “When we all look at the same data, we all have the same basis for negotiating the future of our planet. I think when only a few people have this data, it changes the balance of power.

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