SAN FRANCISCO — U.S. government agencies are working together to look for ways to reduce the cost of future Landsat missions as a result of congressional direction included in the 2012 budget passed in December.

“Although Congress has provided $2 million to the U.S. Geological Service for Landsat 9 program development, they have also requested that the Administration re-examine how to proceed with future Landsat missions,” Jon Campbell, spokesman for the Interior Department’s U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), said in a Jan. 10 email. “Accordingly, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of Management and Budget, USGS, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have formed a team to look at all possible options for Landsat missions, addressing performance, cost and risk.”

U.S. President Barack Obama requested $48 million for USGS to pave the way for development of Landsat 9 and Landsat 10, spacecraft designed to extend the Landsat program’s 40-year record of providing moderate-resolution imagery on global agriculture, land use and natural disasters.

Congressional appropriators balked at that request, however, citing the high cost of Landsat spacecraft. Instead, they allocated $2 million for Landsat “program development only” and suggested that administration officials seek “less costly options for obtaining Landsat data,” according to the conference report attached to the 2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act that Obama signed into law Dec. 23.

“The conferees have not agreed to transfer budgetary authority for the launch of Landsat satellites 9 and 10 from” NASA to USGS, the report said. Noting that the overall costs of developing and operating Landsat spacecraft in addition to maintaining the extensive Landsat data archive are expected to exceed $400 million by 2014, the conferees said, “There is little doubt that resources will not be available within the Interior Appropriations bill to support these very large increases without decimating all other [USGS] programs.”

Since Landsat 9 is scheduled for launch in 2018, all agencies involved in the Landsat effort have time to “re-examine how to proceed with future Landsat missions,” the conference report added.

NASA has been responsible for development, construction and launch of Landsat spacecraft since the first satellite was launched in 1972. USGS operates the satellites once they reach orbit and maintains the Landsat data archive.

With the 2012 budget, the Obama administration sought to consolidate Landsat’s management and budgetary authority within USGS by creating the National Land Imaging Program. The administration requested a total of $99.8 million for the first year of the National Land Imaging Program to establish the organization, pay for ongoing Landsat operations, prepare ground systems to obtain data from the Landsat Data Continuity Mission scheduled for launch in early 2013, and plan for Landsat 9 and Landsat 10.

Although Congress approved only $2 million of the $48 million requested for Landsat 9 and the new organization, that funding is welcome because it marks the first time Congress has allocated any money for a Landsat spacecraft beyond the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, said Curtis Woodcock, team leader for the USGS Landsat Science Team and a Boston University professor. “Two million dollars is not enough to start building Landsat 9, but it is enough to draft requirements and make recommendations,” Woodcock said.

James Irons, Landsat Data Continuity Mission project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., declined to comment on the congressional action. He said, however, that while it might seem like NASA does not need to move forward quickly with development of satellites to follow the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, time is of the essence. “If we are going to be able to launch a satellite in 2018, we need to begin funding and preliminary development work very soon,” he said. “It takes five to six years to formulate a design, build and launch a satellite. So we can’t wait too long if we expect to transition the Landsat program into an operational program.”

If the Landsat Data Continuity Mission is launched, as planned, between Jan. 15, 2013, and Feb. 15, 2013, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, it will reach orbit 12 years after the previous Landsat spacecraft. That type of delay creates a significant risk of data gaps, Irons said.

Two Landsat spacecraft remain in orbit, Landsat 5, launched in 1984, and Landsat 7, launched in 1999. Landsat 5 is not currently capturing imagery due to the rapid degradation of an amplifier used to transmit imagery to ground stations. On Nov. 18, USGS announced plans to suspend Landsat 5 imaging operations for 90 days while engineers seek ways to restore transmissions.

Landsat 7’s primary instrument, the Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus, continues to gather data, but the satellite’s scan line corrector stopped working in 2003, resulting in degraded imagery.

Woodcock also expressed concerns about maintaining Landsat operations to extend long-term data records used to monitor changing land use. He said the idea of finding less expensive ways to obtain the same data is worth exploring in a way that does not threaten the ongoing data stream. “While Landsat 9 is being built would be the logical time to explore [less expensive] alternatives and possibly conduct a technology demonstration mission,” he said. “But to take a well-established data stream people depend on and switch [to new data gathering techniques] without testing and development seems foolish.”

NASA officials declined to comment on the congressional appropriations, referring questions about the budget for Landsat 9 and Landsat 10 to USGS, NASA spokeswoman Rani Gran said.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...