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Preliminary Landsat Strategy Expected by the End of May

U.S. government officials developing a plan for the long-term collection and distribution of Landsat-type imagery are expected to present preliminary findings to the White House Office of Management and Budget by May 31.

John H. Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, called for a long-term Landsat data continuity strategy in December at the same time he issued a memorandum directing NASA to acquire a free-flying land-imaging satellite. The new spacecraft is needed by 2011 to replace a pair of old and ailing Landsat spacecraft not expected to last through the end of this decade.

Marburger’s Dec. 23 memorandum reversed an August 2004 decision to transition the collection of land-remote-sensing data to the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), a series of civil-military weather satellites under development. But the December memorandum also stated that it remains the U.S. government’s goal to “transition the Landsat program from a series of independently planned missions to a sustained operational program.”

Whether that “sustained operational program” should be funded and managed by a U.S. government agency, an international consortium, commercial partner or some other arrangement was left to the National Science and Technology Council, a cabinet-level body, to answer.

A U.S. government official involved in the council’s Future of Land Imaging Interagency Working Group, which is conducting the study, said the group has been meeting weekly since around the beginning of the year to discuss the various options and hear from members of the U.S. remote sensing community.

The U.S. government official, who asked to not be identified by name, said the group is on track to send a letter to the Office of Management and Budget by May 31 that will provide “some indication of what we are finding out and where we are headed” in order to help the White House prepare its 2008 budget request. A final recommendation is due to be delivered to Marburger by February 2007.

Between now and then, the Future of Land Imaging Interagency Working Group — which is staffed by officials from NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the Departments of Defense, Energy and Agriculture — plans to keep the Landsat community informed about the study effort by making presentations at conferences and other public meetings as well as posting updates on a dedicated Web site that will be set up at www.landimaging.gov.

The working group also plans to hold a public workshop in June to coincide with a NASA industry day for companies interested in bidding on the next Landsat mission. NASA intends to issue a request for proposals by autumn.

Dedicated U.S. government-owned-and-operated Landsat spacecraft have gathered medium-resolution land imagery nonstop since the early 1970s. Recognizing the importance of Landsat, the U.S. Congress in 1992 enacted the Land Remote Sensing Policy Act, committing the U.S. government to ensure the long-term continuous collection of Landsat imagery.

Continuing to rely on government-owned-and-operated satellites is one option still on the table, according to U.S. government officials interviewed for this article, but the group also is looking at public-private partnerships “where we share risks and benefits with a private party,” international partnerships and commercial data buys.

The U.S. government official said the group is likely to recommend a combination approach where the United States “may chose to launch one Landsat-type satellite, then either partner with international or private partners to supplement the fleet.”

Current Landsat specifications call for collecting imagery of any spot on the Earth at least every 16 days. But with Landsat 5 and Landsat 7 flying in complimentary orbits, Landsat users have grown accustomed to eight-day revisits and many are loathe to lose that capability. U.S. government officials said properly equipped international or commercial satellites could give Landsat users the more-frequent revisits they desire without the United States having to operate more than one Landsat at a time.

Comments: bberger@space.com