Editorial: Long-term Stability for Landsat Draws Within Sight

by

U.S. President Barack Obama has taken an important and long-overdue step toward operationalizing the government’s land remote sensing mission with his proposal in the 2012 budget request to transfer responsibility for funding future Landsat satellites from NASA to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Department of Interior branch that first called for such a system in the 1960s.

The White House is asking Congress for $100 million next year for a revamped National Land Imaging program within the USGS. In addition to operating existing Landsat satellites and archiving the data, which already are USGS responsibilities, the new program office would provide the requirements and funding for follow-on spacecraft. NASA, using USGS money, would continue to procure the Landsat satellites in an arrangement similar to the one under which the space agency has long purchased satellites on behalf of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is responsible for weather forecasting.

NASA since the 1970s has been building Landsat satellites, whose imagery is used for applications including forestry, resource management and exploration, and agricultural monitoring as well as research. Many of these applications fall squarely in the realm of operational in the sense that they serve government and commercial functions, but the program has long lacked the management stability commensurate with its importance.

NASA, which as a research and development agency is interested primarily in building one-of-a-kind scientific satellites, has been something akin to a foster parent for Landsat, looking to find it a permanent home. During most of the 1990s, for example, the NASA-procured Landsat satellites were operated by the Eosat commercial venture, which sold the data to customers that included U.S. government agencies. That arrangement proved unsatisfactory in the long run, however, and the USGS assumed the operating and data management role with the launch of Landsat 7 in 1999.

Another attempt to commercialize the program, a NASA-led procurement under which a private company would buy the satellites in addition to marketing the data, flopped when the agency received only one bid, which it found unacceptable. That was followed by an ill-conceived plan to place land imaging sensors on a new generation of civil-military weather satellites, an idea that never stood up to technical scrutiny.

The lack of stable, long-term stewardship for Landsat is reflected today in what can best be described as a very tenuous data stream that could stop flowing at a moment’s notice. Currently the USGS operates the barely functional Landsat 5, which was launched way back in 1984 for a nominal five-year mission, and Landsat 7, which has been on orbit nearly 12 years and has been returning incomplete data due to a main sensor glitch. The next satellite, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, was ordered by NASA after years were lost on these failed attempts to offload the program. The nearly $1 billion satellite is well behind schedule, with a launch now scheduled for late 2012 or 2013.

Planning for the next mission, Landsat 9, tentatively slated to launch in 2018, would begin in earnest next year with $48 million in new money requested by the White House as part of the $100 million budgeted for the National Land Imaging program. Administration officials anticipate that funding line rising to $250 million, a sum that amounts to a fourth of the USGS’s total annual budget, in the years ahead as Landsat 9 development ramps up. Wary that a program of that size could be tempting as a source of funds for other parts of the USGS — and vice versa — the White House is setting up the National Land Imaging program as a standalone account, which in theory will make it a more difficult raiding target.

By putting Landsat satellite funding responsibility under the same departmental roof as that of a key Landsat constituency, the White House could finally bring long-term program stability that keeps the data flowing. This is a most welcome development that deserves the full support of the relevant congressional committees and agencies involved.