Yesterday, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) satellite was launched on an Atlas V 401 rocket from the Vandenberg Air Force Base. Within a couple of hours, it successfully entered into orbit, deployed its solar panels and started sending telemetry data.
The LDCM satellite was built by Orbital Science Corporation, a company still not very well known outside of a certain niche but it’s becoming one of the most important private companies in the field of space missions, including those operated by private companies. During the year, the company will attempt to emulate SpaceX with the launch of its own spacecraft. For now, it got included in the Landsat satellites program.
The program of the Landsat satellites aims to acquire updated images of the Earth that are used for a lot of purposes which have increased over time: from environmental studies to agriculture, from geology to education and various other scientific fields. The Landsat program was inaugurated in 1972 with the launch of the first satellite, originally called Earth Resources Technology Satellite 1, on July 23 1972.
Over the past 40 years other satellites were launched with more and more sophisticated instruments and inevitably over time they failed. Only two of them are still working and the Landsat 5, launched on March 1, 1984, has just entered the Guinness Book of Records for becoming the longest-operating Earth observation satellite. However, in December it was decided that it will be decommissioned in the coming months because one of its gyroscopes failed and so currently it’s not very reliable.
The Landsat 6 was never used because after after its launch on October 5, 1993 it failed reaching orbit. The Landsat 7 satellite, launched on April 15, 1999, is still working even though since 2003 its main instrument works only partially. It’s still able to do its job.
The Landsat program is American and the LDCM mission is a collaboration between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the U.S.A. government agency that deals with the study of the territory. However, the images collected are from the whole world and are freely available. This allows anyone to use them for a wide variety of purposes and the users are really a lot. Among them there’s also Google, which has used also the Landsat data to make Google Maps.
The control of the territory has always been important but due to the recent climate changes this has become one of the most important tasks of the Landsat satellites. In some cases it’s a long-term task, such as the monitoring of the melting glaciers. In other cases, evaluated of the moment are assessed such as for example in the case of an assessment after a natural disaster. Even better when a disaster can be prevented such as if the updated images show a drought that can cause fires and it’s possible to take the necessary steps to act quickly.
The test of the new LDCM satellite will require several weeks and if all goes well it will start to do its job with the name Landsat 8. The cost of this satellite is around $1 billion but the observations this spacecraft the size of an SUV can perform with its instruments, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) and the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS), are so important that they’re worth much more than that.