Satellite’s Space Trip Ends After 30 Years

Posted December 28th, 2012 at 7:45 pm (UTC+0)
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Artist drawing of Landsat-5 in space (Image: USGS)

Artist drawing of Landsat-5 in space (Image: USGS)

The longest operating Earth-observing satellite is about to be decommissioned by the US Geological Survey.

The USGS has begun the task of lowering Landsat-5 from its operational orbit.  The first series of maneuvers in that effort is likely to take place within the next month.

Landsat-5 was the fifth of seven satellites launched as part of the Landsat program, which has been acquiring satellite imagery of Earth since 1972.

Launched from California on March 1, 1984, Landsat-5 has circled Earth more than 150,000 times.

According to the USGS, which helps manage the mission, the satellite has been an extraordinary success, providing valuable contributions to the global record of land change.

Its original mission was only supposed to last three years, but Landsat-5 continued to deliver imagery and data for more than 25 more years beyond that.

The satellite experienced a number of problems over the years, but scientists and technicians managed to bring it back from the brink of failure.

This image of the abandoned city of Pripyat, home to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was taken by Landsat-5 three days after the April 26, 1986, nuclear accident. (Image: NASA GSFC Landsat/LDCM EPO Team)

This image of the abandoned city of Pripyat, home to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was taken by Landsat-5 three days after the April 26, 1986, nuclear accident. (NASA)

However, the recent failure of one of its gyroscopes proved to be one problem too many, finally bringing Landsat-5′s decades-long mission to an end.

“This is the end of an era for a remarkable satellite, and the fact that it flew for almost three decades is a testament to the NASA engineers and the USGS team who launched it and kept it flying well beyond its expected lifetime,” said Anne Castle, Department of the Interior assistant secretary for Water and Science. “The Landsat program is the gold standard of satellite observation, providing an invaluable public record of our planet that helps us tackle critical land, water, and environmental issues.”

Over more than a quarter of a century, Landsat-5  observed and sent back Earth imagery and data  reflecting the many changes which have taken place on our planet, not only from natural hazards and a changing climate, but also due to land use practices.

It observed the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, the 1991 Kuwaiti oil fires set by a fleeing Iraqi military, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, as well as rainforest depletion, wildfires, floods, global crop production, and the expansion and retreat of the Earth’s ice shelves.

Image taken by Landsat-5 in 1991 shows inky-black smoke pouring into the atmosphere from burning oil wells as defeated Iraqi military forces set fire to oil wells as they retreated from Kuwait. (Image: NASA GSFC Landsat/LDCM EPO Team)

Image taken by Landsat-5 in 1991 shows inky-black smoke pouring from burning oil wells which were set afire by defeated Iraqi military forces as they retreated from Kuwait. (NASA)

“Any major event since 1984 that left a mark on this Earth larger than a football field was likely recorded by Landsat-5, whether it was a hurricane, a tsunami, a wildfire, deforestation, or an oil spill,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “We look forward to a long and productive continuation of the Landsat program, but it is unlikely there will ever be another satellite that matches the outstanding longevity of Landsat-5.”

Landsat-5 observations have helped increase our understanding and awareness of the impact humans have on the land, according to the USGS.

With Landsat-5 out of commission, a number of Earth-observing satellites put into space by other governments and private companies, continue to operate.

Landsat-7, which launched in 1999, and the upcoming  Landsat-8 (LDCM), which launches in 2013, will take up where Landsat-5 left off, continuing to keep watch over an ever-changing planet.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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One Response to “Satellite’s Space Trip Ends After 30 Years”

  1. Congratulations to NASA., and its scientists, for its past, and current successes with its ‘Landsat’ series of satellites.

    Best Wishes for the future of such satellites and their developers!.