June 19, 2018  
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Meet the satellite Trump's budget didn't kill
Meet the satellite Trump's budget didn't kill
Brittany Patterson, E&E News reporter

Nobody really knows why the Landsat 9 satellite was saved.

While many federal agencies overseeing climate change programs braced last week for the Trump administration's proposed budget to slash or eliminate their funding, the Department of the Interior's science agency breathed one sign of relief. The Landsat 9 ground system was specifically named as one of the U.S. Geological Survey's "essential science programs" and deemed investment-worthy.

Peter Doucette, associate program coordinator with the Land Remote Sensing Program at the USGS, said it was difficult to speculate why President Trump's "skinny" budget embraced the mission. But he noted the satellite's development is a joint mission with NASA.

"Because we do have NASA's marching army moving forward, there may have been some concerns about if there was going to be discussions about delaying or reducing the ground segment that's a huge impact to NASA," he said. "I think it was to alleviate those concerns."

Landsat data plays a key role in studying how climate change is affecting the Earth, for example tracking deforestation and glacial recession. It also provides key data for decisionmakers across the globe in myriad other sectors. The first Landsat satellite was launched in July 1972, and since then the program, run jointly by USGS and NASA, has been collecting near-real-time images of Earth, making it the longest-running satellite imagery program in history.

NASA assembles the actual satellites and launches them into space. USGS flies the satellite once it's safely in orbit, making minute adjustments and steering the system around space junk. The agency also runs the "ground segment," or back end of the system. The USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science center in Sioux Falls, S.D., receives, processes and distributes the data obtained by Landsat.

Today, two Landsat satellites scan the Earth in tandem. Landsat 7, launched in 1999, and Landsat 8, launched in 2013, each circles the globe every 16 days and together revisit their respective starting points every eight days, providing a full body scan of Earth.

Landsat 7 is coming to the end of its life, with its fuel supply likely to run out in 2020 or early 2021, and Landsat 9 is set to take its place, Doucette said.

"The further we go out beyond [2020] without a replacement for [Landsat] 7, means there's now a gap of what used to be eight days of revisit coverage will be 16 days," he said. "If you drop that back to 16, that's going to impact a lot of users."

Forestry and drought and flood monitors are just a few of the sectors that rely on the consistency of images generated by the system. Landsat is especially valuable to the agricultural community, which can use the images to help forecast crop yields because the system's infrared sensors are good at monitoring plant growth and seeing things like pests or disease, sometimes hard to pick up with the naked eye.

Doucette said there was debate about what Landsat 9 should or could look like, especially as technology shifts. The Obama administration greenlit Landsat 9 as it stands now, and NASA began building the new satellite a few years ago.

In order to prepare for Landsat 9 going online, USGS will be able to tap into much of the existing infrastructure here on Earth, but the agency will apply updates to its software among other things.

Other satellite missions within NASA were not as lucky. The president's budget blueprint cut $102 million from NASA's Earth science program and would "terminate" four key satellite missions and low-orbit space research that provides data for the study of climate change.


Posted on Monday, March 20, 2017 (Archive on Monday, April 10, 2017)
Posted by Jym St. Pierre   Contributed by Jym St. Pierre

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