Landsat 8
Artist's concept of the Landsat 8 satellite NASA launched in February 2013. Credit: Orbital ATK

WASHINGTON — Landsat 8 began routine operations May 30 as the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) took control of the latest in the long-running series of medium-resolution Earth-observation satellites from NASA.

Landsat 8’s five-year mission is to map changes to Earth’s surface from a polar orbit about 700 kilometers above the planet. USGS will operate the satellite from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., but data collection and distribution will be handled by the Earth Resources Observations and Science (EROS) Center near Sioux Falls, S.D. EROS also handles data from Landsat 7, a satellite launched in 1999 and which, despite troubles with its Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus instrument, is still beaming down data. 

There are “over 20,000 Landsat scenes that have already been collected dating back to April 2012, and they are now available to the world at no cost,” Frank Kelly, director of EROS said during a May 30 press conference from Sioux Falls that marked the official start of Landsat 8’s mission. 

Landsat 8 launched Feb. 11 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. NASA had control of the satellite through a brief checkout period on orbit, which just ended. 

Landsat data, part of a growing Earth-surface record that dates back to 1972, has been free to anyone who wants it since 2008. With the stopgap Landsat 8 up and running, NASA and the USGS now return their attention to a puzzle they have so far been unable to solve: continuing a long-running record of Earth-surface changes without building another dedicated satellite.

Although the two will explore alternatives together, NASA will be in charge, the agency’s Earth Science Director, Michael Freilich, said in a May 21 interview with SpaceNews.

“NASA is the lead, and USGS represents the user communities,” Freilich said in the interview. “We’ve already started talking with [USGS] and have identified a small group of people to scope the study. We’re talking about three or four people on each side.”

Freilich, who was also on hand for the May 30 Landsat 8 turnover ceremony, has not identified the members of the study team, who will not have long to complete a study intended to lay the groundwork for what the Earth Science chief called a “sustainable, multi-decadal [Landsat] program.” 

“We’re casting a fairly broad net between now and August 2014,” Freilich told SpaceNews. “We will be examining and doing system design for this sustained land-imaging system.” 

The agencies will explore some of the same things that were tried without success last decade, including commercializing the acquisition of Earth images and data, and flying Earth-imaging instruments as hosted payloads.  

Freilich said whatever alternative the agencies settle on will have capabilities analogous to Landsat 7 or Landsat 8. The White House wants a long-term plan where spending over two decades comes out to between $100 million to $120 million a year, Freilich told SpaceNews May 21. 

Formerly known as the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, Landsat 8 — like a number of its predecessors — was built for USGS through industry contracts managed by NASA. Design, development and launch cost are about $900 million, according to a Government Accountability Office report published in April. Five years of operations is expected to bring the tab to about $930 million. 

Landsat 8 has two main instruments: a $188 million medium-resolution Operational Land Imager, built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., and the $160 million Thermal Infrared Sensor, which was built at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The spacecraft bus was built under a $194 million contract Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. inherited when it bought General Dynamics’ Gilbert, Ariz.,-based satellite business in 2010.

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...