Legacy of Landsat
Think about all that’s happened over the last 50 years. A lot can change in a half-century. When it comes to the planet we call home, we’ve been able to track everything from receding reservoirs and forest recovery to urban development and toxic algal blooms in lakes, all thanks to diligent documentation of the view from above. Since 1972, Landsat satellites have continuously acquired images of the Earth’s land surface, providing uninterrupted data objectively measuring changes impacting life on Earth. That also includes measuring crop health, changes in glacial extent, tracking forest fires and objective measurements of human impact to the Earth’s surface from urban sprawl and land use. Landsat data enables the nation and the world to manage its natural resources effectively.
The first Landsat satellite launched in July 1972 and the latest, Landsat 9, went to space in September 2021. The program, jointly managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), has spanned more than 50 years and provided consistent and constant remotely sensed data for scientists and decision makers.
All these years later, the mission is more vital than ever, and efforts continue to build on its legacy. Ball Aerospace is proud to partner with NASA, the USGS and the science community to develop and demonstrate a future Landsat architecture that maintains data integrity, while enabling a more flexible and sustainable approach to land imaging missions.
Landsat of Today
Before looking ahead, it’s worth giving some special attention to the current Landsat satellites, especially the recent milestone celebrated for Landsat 8. The satellite launched on February 11, 2013, so it’s now surpassed 10 years in space. It was the first Landsat satellite to launch in the 21st century and included two new instruments, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) and the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS). Ball Aerospace proudly built OLI and the cryocooler for TIRS on Landsat 8, as well as OLI-2 and the TIRS-2 cryocooler for its sister satellite, Landsat 9. Fun fact: our cryocooler chills the TIRS instruments' infrared photo detectors to a frigid 40K!
Landsat 9 replaced Landsat 7 (launched in 1999), taking its place in orbit. The instruments on Landsat satellites have evolved significantly over the years, with OLI-2 and TIRS-2 on Landsat 9 representing the most advanced technology launched to date. The images above are the first images from Landsat 9, courtesy of NASA and the USGS.
Landsat 9 and Landsat 8 collect about 1,400 scenes per day to add to the Landsat global land archive. From forests and farms to bodies of water and urban areas, the view from orbit helps us better understand our home planet and monitor both natural and human-caused change.
For example, Landsat images can show changes to watersheds over time, which directly impact agriculture. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Pueblo County, Colorado, has over 900 farms, which grow Pueblo’s famous green chili peppers and other produce. Pueblo’s crop health relies heavily on the Pueblo Reservoir for irrigation. Landsat images detect seasonal changes to the reservoir. Being sensitive to soil moisture, they help to monitor crop health and provide information on irrigation needs during a growing season.
Sustainable Land Imaging
Instrument innovation for next generation Landsat systems is continuing under NASA’s Sustainable Land Imaging-Technology (SLI-T) program. SLI-T is a partnership with industry to design and demonstrate the Landsat instruments of the future. Together, with NASA’s Sustainable Land Imaging-Technology program, we are leveraging our expertise in earth observation technologies to reinvent the future of land imaging, delivering sustainable, reliable and continuous data for many years to come.
NASA’s Earth Science Technology Office (ESTO) selected two Ball proposals for development and demonstration, with final airborne science flights for the two instruments successfully completed in 2020 (image to the right). The Compact Hyperspectral Prism Spectrometer (CHPS) and the Reduced Envelope Multi-Spectral Imager (REMI) programs aim to maintain continuity of the Landsat data record and provide flexibility for new technology insertion while reducing program costs.
At a more than 30 percent reduction in size from the Ball-built OLI and OLI-2 currently flying on Landsat 8 and Landsat 9, a spaceborne CHPS would deliver visible through shortwave infrared data while enabling new science applications such as mineral mapping and categorizing plant species. A spaceborne REMI would yield visible through shortwave infrared data that is equivalent to data currently delivered by Landsat's OLI and Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS) instruments, while being less than half the size of the combined instruments. These technology demonstrations, in addition to other funded studies completed by Ball, have informed NASA’s architecture design for Landsat Next a flexible and sustainable next generation architecture for the Landsat program.
On the heels of those airborne science flights, NASA selected Ball Aerospace to move forward with three additional studies to develop and demonstrate future Sustainable Land Imaging technologies beyond Landsat Next. The three studies include: Landsat Calibration Satellite (LCS), TransCal and Reduced Envelope Multispectral Infrared Radiometer (REMIR). These studies reflect the importance of continued advancement and the development of creative solutions. We are pushing the boundaries of what's possible when it comes to innovating robust, precisely-calibrated sensors in increasingly compact packages.
Next to continue the Landsat legacy, Landsat Next will be a trio of smaller satellites that can each detect 26 wavelengths of light and thermal energy. The mission is designed to provide finer resolution and more frequent data to monitor Earth’s changing surface.
In 2021, Ball Aerospace was selected by NASA for two Landsat Next architecture studies: Landsat Next Instrument Study – Constellation Satellite Concept and Landsat Next Instrument – Single Satellite Concept. As part of the two six-month studies, Ball examined instrument architectures that extend Ball’s Operational Land Imager (OLI) and Reduced Envelope Multispectral Imager (REMI) instrument designs to address new spectral bands, improved spatial resolution and new orbit parameters.
Ball Aerospace’s Landsat heritage, technology development and optimized system designs align well with Landsat Next objectives. We’re proud of our continued role in a mission that monitors and helps manage land resources needed to sustain human life.
If you’re interested in seeing what Landsat satellites are viewing in near real-time, check out the EarthNow! Landsat image viewer.