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

GREENBELT, Md. — The U.S. government should consider ordering a pair of Landsat spacecraft to ensure at least another two decades of continuous collection of medium-resolution land imagery, according to the head of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) center responsible for operating the recently launched Landsat 8 and processing and distributing its data worldwide. 

“I like the idea of being able to do a block buy,” Frank Kelly, director of the Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Earth Resources Observation and Science Data Center, said Aug. 20 at the Maryland Space Business Roundtable’s monthly luncheon here. A block buy is an obvious way to avoid disrupting the record of medium-resolution Earth observations the Landsat program has built up during the last 40 years, Kelly told a crowd of government workers and contractors. 

The eighth Landsat satellite launched in February, and NASA turned the keys over to the USGS in May. The nearly $1 billion spacecraft was built after NASA tried and failed to find a commercial partner for the project and then spent several years trying to cram the Landsat sensor suite onto the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, a joint civil-military weather satellite constellation canceled in 2010.

When NASA announced as part of its 2014 budget request in April that it would begin studying a long-term Landsat strategy, it said everything would be on the table, including hosted payload arrangements, commercial data buys, and partnerships with international space agencies whose satellites might be collecting Landsat-like images. 

USGS, NASA said, would speak for the user community. The results of the study the two agencies are conducting will be published next August, Kelly said.

Kelly said the user community has already identified one of its top priorities for the program: collecting Landsat images once every eight days. That is only possible when there are two Landsat satellites on orbit, as there are today with Landsat 7 and Landsat 8.

“If we want to keep an eight-day repeat, that’s two birds,” Kelly said, explaining one possible block-buy strategy. “You buy two, then you buy two more. Buying four [at a time] is probably too many, because then you have to store them.”

Kelly said buying too many satellites at once is one of the problems the Defense Department ran into with its Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), through which the Pentagon has bought operational weather satellites since the 1960s. 

On Aug. 5, the military shipped a refurbished, 1990s-vintage DMSP spacecraft to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for a March launch. Other than the program’s propensity to create hangar queens, however, DMSP is a model for how Landsat could be, said Kelly, a 15-year Air Force veteran who cut his engineering and procurement teeth on DMSP.

In May, Michael Freilich, head of NASA’s Earth Science Division, told SpaceNews that the 20-year Landsat strategy the space agency is trying to hammer together with help from USGS should cost an average of $100 million to $120 million a year.

In the meantime, the eight-day revisits Landsat users have come to expect are in jeopardy because of Landsat 7’s dwindling fuel supply, Kelly said. The spacecraft, launched in 1999, will run out of fuel in three to four years, so it might behoove the space agency to consider building a clone of Landsat 8 right away.

“Three years time means there’s a significant threat,” Kelly said. “Houston, we have a problem.” 

The Senate Appropriations Committee has signaled its support for a quick-turnaround Landsat 8 follow-on. A 2014 spending bill the committee passed in July urges NASA to immediately draw up plans for a Landsat 9 that can be built for no more than $650 million.

Senate Appropriations Committee chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who styled herself “the godmother of Landsat” in a video clip marking the handover of Landsat 8 to the USGS, is an ardent supporter of the Goddard Space Flight Center here. The center managed the development of Landsat, built one of its two main instruments and hosts the USGS employees who operate the spacecraft.

Kelly is not sure a $650 million ceiling is a reasonable price tag for a spacecraft that does everything Landsat orbiters have traditionally done. 

After adjusting the price of previous Landsat satellites for inflation “they all cost something like $800 million to $1 billion,” Kelly said. “That seems to be the zone of what this costs.”

The Landsat 8 spacecraft was built by Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. under a 2008 contract it acquired when it bought General Dynamics’ Gilbert, Ariz.-based satellite division. Landsat 8’s main instrument, the Operational Land Imager, was built by Boulder, Colo.-based Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., which had sought to supply the full spacecraft under a fixed-price contract until Mikulski intervened to put Goddard at the center of the project. 


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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...