Happy Birthday Landsat 8, time to look back and forward

False-colour image of an ongoing eruption at Iceland’s Holuhraun lava field, September 2014; as NASA notes, the sight was spectacular from the ground or low-flying aircraft – or, indeed, from Landsat 8’s Operational Land Imager (NASA Earth Observatory)

11 February 2018

To mark the fifth anniversary today of the launch of Landsat 8, do take a few minutes to read this excellent report on the programme’s impact by Patrick Lynch and Laura Rocchio of NASA’s Earth science news team.

There’s little to add to their summary, but it’s worth underscoring just why Landsat is so important. Simply, this series of missions has provided – with no gaps – a 45-year data series. There are satellites that offer finer resolution in some spectra and constellations that provide shorter revisit intervals, but for quality of data and the long-term continuity so valuable to scientists, this NASA-US Geological Survey programme remains the benchmark for Earth imaging.

And, it bears repeating, the NASA-USGS determination that the entire Landsat archive should be freely available has transformed the value of space to scientists, businesses, planners and public services. With Europe’s ambitious Copernicus-Sentinel programme taking the same stance – and underscoring efforts to ensure harmonisation of data and complementarity of missions – it is difficult to draw any conclusion other than that we stand to know more about our planet, and hopefully manage it better, than could have been imagined just a few years ago.

Your correspondent has heard it remarked that freely available satellite data threatens to undermine commercial constellation operators’ business cases, at least if the data coming from Landsat or the Sentinels were to match the finest resolutions available from some of those private sector missions. Perhaps – but take that to mean that the private sector challenge is to add layers of value to Landsat and Sentinel data so as to enable even faster, more precise and more specialised applications that turn data into knowledge and action. Earth observation is richer for it.

On this fifth anniversary of Landsat 8, it’s also worth noting that the spacecraft was built with a five-year design life. As Lynch and Rocchio observe, there is no cause to believe Landsat 8 won’t perform perfectly for years to come. But, still, the good news is that its successor – Landsat 9 – is on track for launch in 2020.

Today is also a good time to recall, or perhaps even tip a glass to, William Pecora. A USGS director who went on to serve as Department of the Interior under secretary, Pecora’s vision for improving on aerial photography motivated the establishment in 1966 of EROS, the Earth Resources Observation Satellite programme, which led to the 1972 launch of the Earth Resources Technology Satellite. That satellite was, in an inspired piece of communication, renamed Landsat. Or, as we came to know it, Landsat 1.

So, thank you William Pecora, happy birthday Landsat 8 and roll-on 2020!

acquired 26 January 2018
A view above the 2018 Winter Olympics: Pyeongchang city, nestled in the Taebaek Mountains that run 500km near the Pacific coast of South and North Korea, with a base elevation of about 700 metres hosts skiing and snowboarding events, while ice events are taking place in Gangneung on the coastal plain between the Taebaek Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Both cities are visible in these natural-colour images acquired 26 January by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8. The top image is draped over topographic data from NASA’a Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM). The second image is a straight down view from OLI (NASA/USGS)