New Earth-observing spacecraft sends first images of the planet

New Earth-observing spacecraft that will continue 50 years of monitoring the changing state of our planet beams home its first images since launching two months ago

  • Landsat 9 launched from the Vandenberg Space Force base in California on Monday, September 27 
  • It is the ninth in the Landsat satellite program, with the first Earth-observer launching for space in 1972
  • This 50-year record of observing the Earth has helped track climate change, monitor crops and aid irrigation
  • The latest satellite will operate with Landsat 8 to image the Earth, taking thousands of images every eight day 

The latest Landsat spacecraft has sent its first images of our changing world back to Earth since it launched to space two months ago. 

The Landsat 9 spacecraft, run by NASA and the US Geological Survey (USGS), launched on September 27 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

The first images to be released were taken on October 31 and show the Florida Panhandle, Detroit and its surrounding areas, as well as Navajo Country in Arizona.  

The US space agency also released images of the high Himalayas and the Kimberley region of Western Australia as part of this first round of pictures from space. 

This is the ninth Landsat satellite, continuing a program which started in 1972, and will work alongside Landsat 8 to image the entire planet every eight days. 

NASA and the USGS have released the first set of pictures from the Landsat 9 satellite since it launched in September. The city of Kathmandu, Nepal, seen at the bottom left of this Landsat 9 image, lies in a valley south of the Himalayan Mountains between Nepal and China. Glaciers, and the lakes formed by glacial meltwater, are visible in the top middle of this image

The satellite will become fully operational in January, taking thousands of images every week of the entire planet. The white sands of Pensacola Beach stand out in this Landsat 9 image of the Florida Panhandle of the United States, with Panama City visible under some popcorn-like clouds

In the Western US, in places like the Navajo Nation as seen in this Landsat 9 image, Landsat and other satellite data help people monitor drought conditions and manage irrigation water

The Landsat 9 spacecraft, run by NASA and the US Geological Survey (USGS), launched on September 27 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California 

LANDSAT 9 

Landsat 9 is the latest satellite in the Landsat series.

It will continue the decades long mission of recording Earth’s land surface and changing climate. 

To reduce the build time and a risk of a gap in observations, Landsat 9 largely replicates its predecessor Landsat 8. 

Landsat 9 will extend our ability to measure changes on the global land surface at a scale.

This is ‘where we can separate human and natural causes of change,’ said USGS in a statement. 

‘Landsat 9 will thus contribute a critical component to the international strategy for monitoring the health and state of the Earth. 

‘Landsat users can now take advantage of more frequent observations (every 8 days using two satellites).’

Applications such as weekly tropical deforestation alerts, water quality monitoring, and crop condition reports are now feasible.

The newly-acquired images provide a ‘preview of how the mission will help people manage vital natural resources and understand the impacts of climate change,’ according to NASA.

They add to the existing 50-year data record, and Landsat 9 will work alongside Landsat 8, which launched in 2013, to get broad coverage of the whole planet. 

‘Landsat 9’s first images capture critical observations about our changing planet,’ said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. 

‘This program has the proven power to not only improve lives but also save lives. 

‘NASA will continue to work with USGS to strengthen and improve accessibility to Landsat data so decision makers in America – and around the world – better understand the devastation of the climate crisis,’ he added.

Explaining it will allow leader and experts to ‘manage agricultural practices, preserve precious resources and respond more effectively to natural disasters.’

These first light images show a wide range of environments.

From Detroit, Michigan, with neighbouring Lake St Clair, to the intersection of cities and beaches along a changing Florida coastline, and images from Navajo Country in Arizona.

They will add to the wealth of data helping USGS and other experts monitor crop health and manage irrigation water. 

The new images also provided data about the changing landscapes of the Himalayas in High Mountain Asia and the coastal islands and shorelines of Northern Australia.

Landsat 9 is similar in design to its predecessor, Landsat 8, which was launched in 2013 and remains in orbit, but features several improvements.   

The new satellite transmits data with higher resolution back down to Earth, allowing it to detect more subtle differences, especially over darker areas like water.

For example, Landsat 9 can differentiate more than 16,000 shades of a given wavelength colour; Landsat 7, the satellite being replaced, detects only 256 shades. 

This increased sensitivity will allow Landsat users to see much more subtle changes than ever before.

‘First light is a big milestone for Landsat users – it’s the first chance to really see the kind of quality that Landsat 9 provides. And they look fantastic,’ said Jeff Masek NASA’s Landsat 9 project scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center. 

‘When we have Landsat 9 operating in coordination with Landsat 8, it’s going to be this wealth of data, allowing us to monitor changes to our home planet every eight days.’

Landsat 9 includes two image capture instruments that help picture the Earth. 

One is the Operational Land Imager 2 (OLI-2), which detects visible, near-infrared and shortwave-infrared light in nine wavelengths.

The other is the Thermal Infrared Sensor 2 (TIRS-2), which detects thermal radiation in two wavelengths to measure Earth’s surface temperatures and its changes.

Landsat 9 carries two instruments designed to work together to capture a broad range of wavelengths

These instruments will provide Landsat 9 users with essential information about crop health, irrigation use, water quality, wildfire severity, deforestation, glacial retreat, and urban expansion, according to NASA.

‘The data and images from Landsat 9 are expanding our capability to see how Earth has changed over decades’, said Karen St. Germain, Earth Science Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. 

‘In a changing climate, continuous and free access to Landsat data, and the other data in NASA’s Earth observing fleet, helps data users, including city planners, farmers and scientists, plan for the future.’

Before it starts full operations in January, the Landsat 9 team will conduct a 100-day check-out period to test all systems, subsystems and calibrate sensors.

Once testing is complete, USGS will operate Landsat 9 along with Landsat 8, and together the two satellites will collect approximately 1,500 images of Earth’s surface every day, covering the globe every eight days.

‘The incredible first pictures from the Landsat 9 satellite are a glimpse into the data that will help us make science-based decisions on key issues including water use, wildfire impacts, coral reef degradation, glacier and ice-shelf retreat and tropical deforestation,’ said USGS acting director Dr David Applegate. 

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