NASA Launches Powerful Earth-Observing Satellite

Posted February 11th, 2013 at 8:09 pm (UTC+0)

An Atlas-V rocket with the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) spacecraft onboard is seen as it launches on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

An Atlas V rocket carrying Landsat 8 seen just after launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (NASA)

NASA’s latest Earth-observing satellite rocketed into space today continuing a program which began more than 40 years ago.

An Atlas V rocket carrying the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) spacecraft launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California.

NASA officials called today’s launch “picture perfect.”   The spacecraft is now on its own after a successful separation from the Centaur upper stage.

The LDCM is the eighth in a series of global observational spacecraft called Landsat, a collaborative effort between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

According to NASA, it will play a critical role in monitoring, understanding and managing the resources, such as food and water, needed to sustain human life.

After three months of testing in orbit, the satellite will become known as Landsat 8, and all operational control of the spacecraft will transfer to USGS.

All Landsat data and imaging will continue to be collected by USGS primary ground stations in South Dakota and Australia.

Orbiting Earth every 99 minutes, Landsat 8 will be able to image Earth every 16 days as it circles the globe in a near polar orbit. Two new sophisticated instruments, Operational Land Imager (OLI) and the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS), will allow Landsat 8 to provide image and data information that wasn’t possible with previous Landsat satellites.

Images from the Landsat satellite series show the Aral Sea in central Asia shrinking significantly from 1977 to 2010 because of water diversion for agricultural use. (Images: USGS EROS Data Center)

Landsat 7 took these images showing the significant shrinkage of central Asia’s Aral Sea from 1977 to 2010 due to water diversion for agricultural use. (USGS)

The OLI will cover wide areas of the Earth’s surface, sending back data and high definition images to help observers distinguish between various surfaces; such as urban, agricultural and forested areas.

The TIRS will use new technology which applies quantum physics to measure land surface temperature in two thermal bands, helping observers differentiate the temperature of the Earth’s surface from that of the atmosphere.

The Landsat mission to study and monitor our planet’s land masses began with the launch of Landsat 1  in 1972.

Since then, Landsat 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 have all been put into service.  Landsat satellites 1 through 4 were taken out of service from the late 1970s through the early 1990s.

Landsat 5 , launched in 1984, was recently taken out of service and Landsat 6 never made it into orbit after a fuel line exploded seven minutes after liftoff.  Along with the just-launched Landsat 8, Landsat 7, which was sent into orbit in 1999, is the only remaining Landsat observing satellite still in service.

In 1974, Mount St Helens in Washington state was surrounded by forests. An image taken three months after the volcanic eruption on 18 May 1980 reveals the devastation caused by the blast, which directed its energy northwards. By 2011, much of the damaged region had started to regrow. (Images: USGS)

Landsat satellites snapped these Washington state images of  Mount St. Helens, which was surrounded by forests in 1974. Three months after the 1980 volcanic eruption, devastation caused by the blast is evident. By 2011, much of the damaged region had started to regrow. (USGS)

The imaging and data provided by the Landsat spacecraft  have helped scientists  better understand our planet’s climate, carbon cycle, ecosystems, water cycle, biogeochemistry and changes to Earth’s surface, as well as our understanding of visible effects  human have made to land surfaces.

NASA and USGS say the information provided by Landsat over the last 40 years has helped improve human and biodiversity health, energy and water management, urban planning, disaster recovery, and agriculture, which in turn has helped develop the world economy.

NASA video overview of the LDCM Mission

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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