Profile: Jay Feuquay, Coordinator, Landsat Sensing Program — A Lifetime of Landsat

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When he moved to U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) headquarters in September 2002 after 20 years in Landsat operations, one of Jay Feuquay’s main goals was to broaden the scope of his work.

The job as coordinator of the Land Remote Sensing program at the survey gave Feuquay an opportunity to direct long-term policy and planning for about 28 programs covering areas such as biology, water, geology and geography. Spacecraft, however, can produce unexpected and sometimes unwelcome surprises, which is why events since his arrival have forced Feuquay to once again spend the majority of his time on Landsat.

In May 2003, Landsat 7, the latest in the line of spacecraft that have provided Earth observation data to the world community for more than three decades, suffered a camera malfunction. The Scan Line Corrector, a device that compensates for its forward motion, stopped working, leaving large gaps in the data that the satellite collects.

Four months later, the U.S. government scuttled an attempt to assure a guaranteed, uninterrupted flow of future Landsat data by commercializing the program. With the cancellation of the commercialization plan, concern among users about the long-term viability of the Landsat program grew worse, increasing the pressure on USGS.

“Any given week, on average, I spend two to three days on Landsat activities,” Feuquay said. “Some weeks out of five days, I’ll spend seven days on Landsat. Obviously Landsat and the Landsat Data Continuity Mission are very important, but I look forward to spending less time on day-to-day management of those activities or trying to secure the resources we need to go forward and more time listening to reports about the progress of the people who are making it go forward.

Now that the White House has approved a plan to place a Landsat style imager on the U.S. National Polar-orbiting Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) spacecraft, Feuquay sees some light at the end of the tunnel. However, with the end of the proposed free-flying satellite intended to eliminate a potential data gap between the end of the current satellites and the first NPOESS launch in 2009, he and the Landsat community will still be sweating it out for a while .

“I’m looking forward to being able to get out of crisis mode and look toward some long-term planning,” Feuquay said. “The longer term future of Landsat is something I’m very excited about,” he said during an interview with Space News staff writer Jason Bates at USGS headquarters in Reston, Va

What kind of shape is the Landsat program in today?

We’re moving forward. A key aspect is the declaration by the Bush administration that Landsat, and by extension land remote sensing using moderate-resolution technology, is a national asset and a national priority. There is a commitment to transition from what had been individually planned research missions into an operational program.

I think the announcement of a strategy to incorporate a Landsat-like sensor on the NPOESS platform guarantees that we’ll have some sort of continuity and long-term stability in the program and more importantly long-term stability of data flow to the user community.

How would you view Landsat if you were still in your operations position?

I suppose I would be viewing it with a combination of hope and frustration. The hope part is justified by the recent developments. The frustration is that nothing happens as quickly as one would like, either in my current position or on the outside looking in.

How hard has it been to convince users that the degraded Landsat 7 data is useful?

We are writing articles and going to scientific meetings and showing that products are still available and still usable. We run a pretty small shop, so the people who make the new products also have a hand in trying to determine what the root cause of the scan line failure was as well as talk to the user community.

They were spread pretty thin at the beginning of the scan line problem, so there may still be some people who think Landsat 7 is dead. We have the Mark Twain problem of informing people that reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.

How much does the loss of the gapfiller satellite increase the chances that data flow may be interrupted?

There was not a big need for a gapfiller mission. Continuity of data is the need. Providing that continuity for a short time at the cost of the Landsat Data Continuity Mission was not as pressing a need. What we have done now is moved away from a one-off system in favor of long-term continuity. We’ve taken the Landsat Data Continuity Mission money and used it for two Operational Landsat Imager sensors and we’re guaranteeing data through the 2023-2024 timeframe. Now we have a chance to work on a long-term system beyond 2020.

Who will be affected the most by a potential gap in the flow of Landsat data?

There is no study I know of that looks at that. The information has been gathered more on a volunteer basis of what will be stalled or curtailed. What we have determined is that availability is a good thing and cutting off that availability is a bad thing and everyone is affected.

Do you put more weight on the concerns of scientific users over commercial users of the data in studying the Landsat problems?

We differentiate more on research versus operational uses of the data and we try to give equal weight to them. Certainly the operational community, our largest users are the Department of Agriculture and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, has a large stake in Landsat data continuity. The operational community has a job they have to get done. The scientific community also has a stake. Their needs are not as time sensitive, but the scientific community is represented in our current planning and as we evaluate the future of the program.

Did you feel that commercializing the program under the Landsat Data Continuity Mission was a realistic option?

It was a solid plan on paper. When it became evident that it would not work there was some disappointment, but it just didn’t work.

Are there concerns about how well the Landsat instrument will work aboard NPOESS?

The concerns are not because the instrument is on NPOESS. The only concern is the same you would have for any instrument in space. But it’s nice to have a backup, because we’re going to have a multi-bird system. By having the instrument on NPOESS, we’ll have a big advantage in getting some dual observation capabilities , such as making the same observations with the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite instrument.

Since the U.S. Geological Survey operates but does not provide the funding for building the spacecraft, how much input did the survey have in determining Landsat’s future?

The inter agency process worked well. I do not believe there was a pecking order based on the money you brought. Ultimately, the money is neutral, because it all flows into the program no matter where it comes from.

Do you think you shortchanged other areas under your purview by having to focus on Landsat?

I don’t think personally I was spending adequate time on other areas. I was not shortchanging them in the here and now, but I was not spending as much time as I would have expected on the long-term planning for some of these other areas.