Obama Proposal Puts USGS in Charge of Future Landsats

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WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama is asking Congress for $99 million next year to establish a permanent budgetary and managerial home within the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for the Landsat series of Earth imaging satellites.

If lawmakers approve the president’s proposal to establish a long-sought National Land Imaging program within the USGS, then the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) now in development for a late 2012 or early 2013 launch would be the last Landsat spacecraft NASA would be responsible for funding, according to a senior administration official.

Anne Castle, assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Interior Department, said NASA would continue to build or buy Landsat spacecraft on behalf of the USGS but would use USGS money to get the job done, rather than spend its own. NASA has been building weather satellites for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this way for decades.

The USGS, a division of the Interior Department, spent about $60 million in 2010 operating Landsats 5 and 7, maintaining the nation’s archive of land remote sensing imagery, and preparing a network of ground receiving stations for LDCM data. NASA, for its part, devoted about $100 million last year to development of the LDCM spacecraft and its two instruments, the Operational Land Imager and the Thermal Infrared Sensor. NASA is requesting $152 million for 2012 to complete construction of the LDCM spacecraft — commonly referred to as Landsat 8 — and prepare it to launch between December 2012 and June 2013. The mission’s total development cost has risen slightly since last year to $587.6 million, including $127 million set aside for an Atlas 5 launch, according to NASA budget documents.

Under the Interior Department’s 2012 spending proposal, the National Land Imaging program would replace the Land Remote Sensing program at USGS and be given a first-year budget of $99.8 million, some $48 million of which would be used to create the new organization, establish a science advisory team and begin planning for Landsat 9. The remainder of the funds would go toward Landsat operations and LDCM ground system preparation.

Castle said the National Land Imaging budget eventually would ramp up to $250 million during the peak development years of Landsat 9, which the department aims to launch in 2018 to ensure some overlap with LDCM.

“USGS will establish the requirements and then pay NASA to develop the instrument and to develop the [spacecraft], put it together and launch it,” Castle said.

Curtis Woodcock, the Boston University professor who leads the Landsat Science Team, welcomed the Interior Department’s proposal as “a clear step forward toward the establishment of Landsat as an operational program.”

“This step is long overdue,” Woodcock told Space News. “For a long time our government has had trouble deciding how to handle operational remote sensing programs for land, and hopefully this is the step that will get us past the bureaucratic hurdle and onto a path that ensures a steady stream of Landsat data.”

The United States has made several abortive attempts over the past decade to put the Landsat program on an operational footing. The missteps include NASA’s ill-fated effort to commercialize the program and a short-lived White House plan to add Landsat instruments to the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, the joint civil-military weather satellite program the Obama administration ordered dissolved last year.

In the wake of a December 2005 decision to drop the Landsat requirements from the overbudget weather satellite program and have NASA build a dedicated spacecraft instead, the White House established an interagency working group to develop a plan for putting Landsat on a stable, operational footing. In 2007, the group delivered a report calling for a National Land Imaging program led by the Interior Department.

Obama embraced that recommendation in the National Space Policy he issued last June.