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

WASHINGTON — Senate appropriators already skeptical of NASA’s plan to explore hosted payload and international partnership concepts as an alternative to building another dedicated Landsat spacecraft were handed fresh ammunition with the Aug. 8 release of a National Research Council (NRC) report calling for a “systematic and deliberate program” to prevent a disruption in Landsat’s 40-year record of moderate-resolution land imagery.

Despite a 1992 law mandating the continuous collection of Landsat-type imagery, “the procurement of the series of Landsat satellites has been ad hoc and has had a chaotic history, characterized by frequent shifting of responsibilities among government agencies and the private sector,” the report says. 

Landsat 8, a $1 billion spacecraft launched in February with a five-year design life but enough fuel to last 10, was finally put under contract in 2007 after NASA spent several years pursuing commercial and interagency partnerships for a successor to the Landsat 7 spacecraft that launched in 1999 but developed a serious instrument glitch a short time later. While Landsat 7 engineers developed a work-around, researchers continued to rely on Landsat 5, which launched in 1984 on a planned three-year mission but kept going until NASA shut it down for good earlier this year. As the NRC pointedly notes in its report, Landsat’s 40-year record of continuous data collection “owes more to the remarkable survival of Landsat 5 for two decades beyond its design life than to careful planning.”

The report, “Landsat and Beyond: Sustaining and Enhancing the Nation’s Land Imaging Program,” recommends that the U.S. government establish a sustained and enhanced land imaging program with an overarching national strategy and long-term commitment, including clearly defined program requirements, management responsibilities, and stable funding.

While the report does not recommend who should oversee the program — the Obama administration now proposes keeping it at NASA after failing to persuade Congress to go along with shifting full responsibility to the U.S. Geological Survey — it outlines key elements of a successful program regardless of where it resides. The core scientific and operational requirement for a future program, the report says, is the capture and distribution of global data that is calibrated to allow comparison with previously collected images, easily accessible by all users, and free.

The report follows closely on the heels of a Senate Appropriations Committee spending proposal that “discourages NASA from spending an inordinate amount of time or money“ on alternative approaches to building a dedicated Landsat 9 satellite that “already have been considered on multiple occasions over the past four decades and have only distracted and delayed the inherently governmental role in preserving the continuity of Landsat data.”

The spending proposal, part of the 2014 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Act the committee approved in July, would also require NASA to submit a plan for a Landsat 9 mission with a $650,000 cost cap.


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Brian Berger is editor in chief of and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. He was named senior staff writer in 2004, a position he held...