The U.S. Department of the Interior has offered to assume full responsibility for the nation’s civilian operational land-imaging program, a development that could relieve NASA of the financial burden of building and launching future Landsat satellites .

The Interior Department’s associate deputy secretary, James E. Cason, made the offer in a May 2 letter to John H. Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“The Department stands ready to accept the challenge of this new century and assume leadership for the Nation’s civilian operational land-imaging program, underscoring our commitment to stewardship and science in service of the Nation,” Cason said in the letter. “We are committed to working with our Federal partners to meet your stated goal of developing ‘a long-term plan to achieve technical, financial and managerial stability for operational land imaging .’”

Ronald Beck, an Interior Department spokesman at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va., said Cason’s offer includes taking over financial responsibility of the program, but stressed such budgetary decisions were up to the White House and Congress. The Geological Survey, a part of the Interior Department, currently is responsible for archiving and distributing Landsat data.

“The financial responsibilities have not been determined yet, but the leadership at Interior stands ready to do this,” Beck said. “If Congress and [the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy] tell Interior to take financial responsibility for this, Interior would proudly accept.”

As the U.S. government’s main conservation agency, the Interior Department manages more than 500 million acres (200 million hectares) of public land and has an annual budget of $16 billion. The department, through the Geological Survey, jointly manages the Landsat program with NASA, which procured the two Landsat spacecraft currently in orbit.

Cason’s letter follows several months of interagency discussions that began in December when Marburger issued a memorandum calling for a plan to “transition the Landsat program from a series of independently planned missions to a sustained operational program.”

Marburger’s Dec. 23 memo reversed an earlier decision to transfer the collection of Landsat-type imagery to the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, a civil-military weather satellite program recently restructured due to cost overruns. The memo ordered NASA to build a dedicated satellite to replace the ailing Landsat 5 and Landsat 7 spacecraft, neither of which is expected to last beyond the end of the decade.

NASA plans to seek bids this autumn for the satellite, which would be launched in 2011 to minimize any gap in the Landsat data record. Dubbed Landsat 8 by the remote sensing community, the satellite is expected to remain in service at least five years.

The U.S. government has not devised a plan to ensure continuous collection of moderate-resolution land imagery beyond Landsat 8. A so-called Future of Land Imaging Interagency Working Group, made up of officials from U.S. civilian and military agencies that use Landsat, is due to deliver recommendations to Marburger by October, with a decision expected in early 2007. Options on the table include continuing to build and operate dedicated land-imaging satellites , adding land-imaging sensors to other planned operational satellites, buying Landsat-type imagery collected by privately owned satellites, and reliance on international partnerships.

A U.S. government official involved in the interagency discussions told Space News earlier this spring that the most likely outcome is a dual-track approach where the government keeps at least one Landsat-type satellite in service and supplements that with satellites operated by private companies or other nations.

U.S. remote sensing policy experts praised the Interior Department’s offer as a step in the right direction for a program that has changed hands more than once since its inception over 30 years ago. Landsat has been on especially shaky ground since 2003, when NASA rejected the only bid it received under the government’s latest attempt to privatize the activity.

“It’s a very big deal,” said James Plasker, executive director of the Bethesda, Md.-based American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing . “Until now there hadn’t been anybody stepping forward.”

Plasker’s comments were echoed by Kass Green, a Berkeley, Calif.-based remote sensing consultant who served as president of Space Imaging Solutions from 2000-2003. “For the first time you have a department stepping up and saying they want to be the land remote sensing agency,” Green said. “That’s never happened before.”

Plasker said the department’s offer, if approved by the White House and Congress, would go a long way toward putting the U.S. land remote sensing program on more stable footing. “We know there are still boulders in the stream that have to be jumped as we go along, but we like the way this is headed,” he said.

Plasker and Green said giving the Interior Department leadership responsibility for operational land imaging likely would not take NASA out of the game. Both said they would expect NASA to manage the acquisition and launch of future Landsat satellites, but use Interior dollars instead of its own to pay the bills. NASA has a similar arrangement with the Commerce Department for building and launching weather satellites.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s Beck said the Interior Department is not interested in setting up a satellite acquisition shop when NASA already has the right people on hand to do the job. “They have all the experience with procurement of satellites,” Beck said, adding that the Geological Survey’s expertise is in operating the satellites once they reach orbit and archiving and distributing their data.

Interior’s offer does have its skeptics.

Ray Williamson, a research professor at the George Washington University here, said NASA, as a research agency, would be happy to shed the financial burden of a program widely viewed as operational. But even if Congress goes along , he said, suddenly giving the U.S. Geological Survey a big budget increase to cover satellite bills would spark a bureaucratic tussle within the Interior Department as its other agencies — such as the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management — cast a covetous eye on the new money.

“Getting the funding from Congress is one issue,” said Williamson. “Infighting within the department in order to keep that money for Landsat is another.”