The White House released a plan Aug. 14 that recommends putting the U.S. Department of Interior in charge of future satellite programs for

collecting moderate-resolution land imagery for civilian purposes.

The 120-page plan lays out a set of policy proposals aimed at putting the long-term collection of Landsat-type imagery on a more stable, operational footing.

U.S. Landsat spacecraft have been collecting moderate-resolution imagery of the Earth’s landmasses continuously since the early 1970s. The two Landsat spacecraft in orbit today are nearing the end of their operational lives and may not last until a successor, dubbed the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, is launched in 2011.

The plan, the product of an interagency Future Land Imaging Working Group, established by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in February 2006, calls for a continued U.S. commitment to moderate-resolution land imaging data. It recommends

the government maintain a core operational capability for collecting that imagery while supplementing it with similar data from other nations or commercial suppliers.

“This plan reflects President [George W.] Bush’s commitment to play a leadership role in understanding the changes in the land surface we observe across the world,” OSTP Director John H. Marburger said in an Aug. 14 press release announcing the report. “The land surface, polar regions, and coastal zones are undergoing significant changes under the pressures of population growth, development, and climate change, and we must carefully monitor these changes in order to manage them. The importance of this imagery to the Nation requires a more sustainable effort to ensure that land imaging data are available far into the future.”

The next Landsat satellite is being procured by NASA on behalf of the U.S. Geological Survey, which is part of the Interior Department. Boulder, Colo.-based Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. was selected this summer to build the spacecraft’s primary instrument; NASA plans to select a contractor to build the spacecraft platform later this year.

A policy analyst at OSTP said the report recommends starting the National Land Imaging Program during the 2009 budget year with a small amount of funding. “But the Department of the Interior is asked to manage the program so the structure and funding of the program will be determined by Interior through their normal planning and budget process,” the OSTP policy analyst said.

The OSTP policy analyst said the Future Land Imaging Interagency Working group examined several models for managing future satellite systems, including the integrated program office approach being used with mixed results by the U.S. Air Force, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA in developing the nation’s next-generation of polar-orbiting weather

satellites. However, the group

decided ultimately that an operational land-imaging program would be best served by putting responsibility with a single agency, namely Interior.

While the Interior Department has offered to host and manage a National Land Imaging Program, the OSTP policy analyst said there are still budget issues to be sorted out, adding that the proposed program “must demonstrate its relevance and importance to those with budget jurisdiction at [the White House Office of Management and Budget] and on the Hill.”

Currently, NASA uses its own budget to procure Landsat spacecraft and then turns them over to the U.S. Geological Survey to operate them. That is in contrast to how many U.S. weather satellites are purchased, where NASA runs the procurements but money for the spacecraft comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s budget.

According to the OSTP policy analyst, NASA’s role in future Landsat procurements will be more akin to the role it plays in buying weather satellites. “The [Future Land Imaging Interagency Working Group] believes that the data needs of the land imaging community should be assessed by an operational land agency such as the Department of Interior in cooperation with other users of the data,” the OSTP policy analyst said.

“However, the group also believes that NASA maintains the technical expertise to design and launch space missions and

therefore NASA should

procure the specified spacecraft under a reimbursable agreement with [the National Land Imaging Program] at the Department of the Interior.”

Mark Myers, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, said the Interior Department is the logical home for a National Land Imaging Program. “We value that kind of data. We have the relationships nationally and internationally to do the coordination. And we have a history as a steward of this resource.”