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Is An Operational Landsat in Sight?

As Space News said so well in its editorial, “The White House has finally gotten it right with its latest Landsat strategy.” [“Finally, Common Sense on Landsat,” Jan. 9, page 18] It was a great Christmas present, but as with so many presents these days, it came with some assembly required and no assembly manual.

Many of the commentators in the several Space News articles noted with great approval the memo’s statement. “It remains the goal of the U.S. government to transition the Landsat program from a series of independently planned missions to a sustained operational program funded and managed by a U.S. government operational agency or agencies, international consortium, and/or commercial partnership.”

But as one article noted in quoting Sam Goward, formally the Landsat Science Team leader and currently co-chair of the National Satellite Land Remote Sensing Data Archive Committee: “That’s open-ended. I worry whether this could leave us in the same situation we have been in for 30 years … everything ultimately becomes associated with dollars — who is going to get the budget authority to execute such an operational system?”

He is absolutely right, it’s the dollar issue that as always will make such a decision difficult. If only satellites were not so expensive they might be affordable by one or more of the “operational” federal agencies or international/commercial partnerships.

The good news is that over the past several years microsat-based imaging satellites costing from $10 million to $30 million have been flown and tested. The German commercial RapidEye 5 satellite system with five 6.5-meter resolution bands and twice the coverage frequency of Landsat is reputedly being developed and launched for a total of about $150 million.

While these and the currently orbiting five-satellite ($10 million plus each) Surrey-built Disaster Monitoring Constellation satellites do not have all of the features of Landsat, several companies have suggested to NASA that with this technology they could provide satellites in the sub-$100 million range that would meet most if not quite all of the Landsat continuity derived requirements.

This price range makes possible a two-satellite mission that would provide the near weekly coverage that Goward has stated was a scientific necessity and that several operational agencies, notably the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, and at least one defense agency (see “Wanted Better Broad-Area Imagery” in the Oct. 31 issue of Space News) noted as one of their most important requirements.

A paper titled “A Constellation of Mixed-Orbit Micro-Satellites for Monitoring Global Land Change and Ecosystem Dynamics” submitted by a U.S. Geological Survey scientific group to the National Research Council in support of their Earth Observation Decadal Study, provides a very similar vision of a future operational system based on their perception of the scientific requirements.

It is to be devoutly hoped that NASA will recognize that the transition of their science-based technology to an operational status is one of their basic mission responsibilities, and that it is really important (and doable) to make this mission’s primary objective the development and testing of a multi bird Landsat-like system with individual satellites costing in the multiple tens of millions of dollars, rather than the $300 million to $400 million they are currently estimating.

And this need not be a risky adventure. A properly written solicitation would allow NASA to let the proposals lead them to a decision as to whether the microsat technology could deliver as advertised or whether prudence required going with the technology from the Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite.

It is important that they try. It is only in this way that the White House’s goal of a sustained operational program has any chance of being met by the tightly constrained budgets of the operational agencies.

It seems fitting to end with another quote from Dr. John H. Marburger, “The agencies will seek to implement an approach for this mission that does not preclude a long-term solution for continuation of Landsat-type data. “

Bill Stoney, Reston, Va.