Landsat 9 launch overshadowed by space tourism frenzy

As a former NASA Earth Scientist, I closely monitor space activity of all types. In recent months, there has been quite a media buzz about space tourists being thrown into space (or suborbital space). Unfortunately, other big launches don’t get the same level of attention. At the end of September, NASA, in partnership with the US Geological Survey (USGS), “quietly” launched Landsat 9. Here’s why it matters to those of us with our feet on the ground.

Most people are probably familiar with NASA activities involving space shuttles, astronauts, and Martian rovers. However, the space agency has a long history of earth sciences. I spent about twelve years of my career as a research meteorologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center before joining the faculty at the University of Georgia. During this time, I have worked among some of the best scientists in the world. We have taken advantage of innovative satellite missions, developed new models and conducted field campaigns to understand Earth’s climate, land use changes, atmospheric composition, water cycle, water cycle. carbon, interior, ocean processes and weather. Landsat has always been part of this portfolio. The launch of Landsat 9 (on an Atlas V rocket) from the Vandenberg Space Force base marked the 2000th launch at this facility.

The series of Landsat missions, the first of which was launched in 1972, is a long-standing partnership between NASA and the USGS. Karen St. Germain is Director of the Earth Sciences Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. In a NASA press release, she said: “For nearly 50 years, Landsat satellites have observed our home planet, providing an unprecedented record of how its surface has changed over time, from days to days. to decades. Scientists, environmentalists, planners, farmers and natural resource managers have used the data over the years.

My research team and collaborators at the University of Georgia 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 over the past decades. Like a doctor, Earth’s scientists must monitor “vital signs” over time to understand. Landsat missions can detect trends on the Earth’s surface and within its climate system.

Thomas Zurbuchen is the Associate Administrator for Science at NASA. He points out in the NASA press release: “By working in tandem with the other Landsat satellites, as well as with our partners from the European Space Agency who operate the Sentintel-2 satellites, we get a more complete view of the Earth than ever before. Landsat 9 joins Landsat 8 in orbit and will increase our ability to track changes. The instruments onboard Landsat 9 are the Operational Land Imager 2 (OLI-2) and the Thermal Infrared Sensor 2 (TIRS-2). These instruments harness the visible (like your eye) and thermal (like IR thermometers increasingly used in the COVID era) parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to capture images at about the pixel size of a baseball infield ( 98 feet / 30 meters in diameter).

Landsat images and data are freely accessible to the public. The USGS Earth Resource Science and Observation Center (EROS) in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is the clearinghouse for five decades of Landsat satellite data. According to NASA, more than 100 million downloads have taken place since 2008.

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