The Landsat program has revolutionized how we view the Earth during its forty continuous years of operation. The reams of data generated by seven generations of satellites has helped govern both public and private policies from agriculture and forestry management to cartography, geology, and urban planning. The eighth iteration of Landsat is slated for launch next week and is expected to deliver more detailed data than ever.
The Landsat program is a collaboration between NASA and the Geological Survey (USGS) and has been generating medium-resolution satellite imagery (15 to 60 meter resolution) non-stop since the first Landsat satellite launched in 1972. Over this time, the program has generated millions of images which provide a constant, near-real-time record of the Earth's surface and humanity's interactions with it, not to mention providing invaluable data during natural disasters and subsequent relief efforts. Through publicly available records, researchers, educators, government agencies, and private citizens can access torrents of scientific data relating to climate change, carbon and water cycles, ecosystems, and more.
"The Landsat program provides the nation with crucial, impartial data about its natural resources," said Matthew Larsen, USGS associate director for climate and land use change in Reston, Va said in a press statement. "Forest managers, for instance, use Landsat's recurring imagery to monitor the status of woodlands in near real-time. Landsat-based approaches also now are being used in most western states for cost-effective allocation of water for irrigation. This mission will continue that vital role."
This role began in 1965 when then-director of the USGS, William Pecora, proposed the program after being inspired by the orbital photography of the Mercury and Gemini projects. Until that point, weather satellites were the only orbiting devices that looked back at the Earth and they only stared at the clouds. That same year, NASA had begun taking land surveys with plane-mounted instruments, though the cost of continually operating these planes was unfeasible. Due to the budget constraints and the glacial pace of progress in Washington, the first Landsat satellite didn't launch for another seven years.
Landsat 1 launched on July 23, 1972, the first Earth-observing satellite launched specifically to monitor landmasses. To perform this task, the Landsat 1 carried a Return Beam Vidicon (RBV) camera system built by RCA and a Multispectral Scanner (MSS) built by Hughes Aircraft. Though the RBV was initially sent up as the primary data collection device, an electrical glitch that caused the satellite to lose altitude whenever the RBV switched on (as well as inferior data quality) forced mission control to demote it as the primary camera and use the four-band MSS instead. This is believed to be the first instance of the Kaepernick Effect observed outside of the Earth's atmosphere.